Monday, October 01, 2018

The Reality of Stem Cell Research vs. Results: A Scientist/Blogger Speaks Out on California's Efforts

A researcher writing on the web site of Science Translational Medicine weighed in last week on California's $3 billion stem cell agency, raising questions about its progress, hype and the fate of the nearly 14-year-old effort. 

In an item Sept. 28 on the blog "In The Pipeline," Derek Lowe said, 
"It’s not like the CIRM money has all been wasted, of course. There’s been a lot of basic research done, and there certainly has been a lot that needed to be done. The amount of brush to be cleared in human developmental cell biology is just monumental. A quick thought the way that all of your body, all the bodies of every human being, comes each from their own single cell will make that clear. If you want stem cell therapies to regenerate organs – as who doesn’t – then you’re asking for a thorough understanding of that process. You may well be asking to do even more than it can tell us how to do."
CIRM is the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, as the agency is formally known. Lowe's brief bio on the the site says he has worked for "several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects."

The occasion for his remarks was the recent lengthy look at the agency by the San Francisco Chronicle at CIRM and its performance. Lowe wrote, 
"What’s happened? What you’d have expected, if you knew the field at all (or were familiar with basic research in general). None of the bigger promises made during the campaign to fund the CIRM have come true. No approved therapies have come out of the work yet – and that’s one of the class of promises that were most egregious, in California and elsewhere. Just imagine the time it takes from discovery to approval for something like this, and then factor in that the needed discovery hadn’t even been made yet. But if you don’t know anything much about stem cells, or regulatory approvals, or medicine in general, the idea of get-out-of-that-wheelchair cures being just around the corner becomes more plausible."
Lowe also noted that voters may be asked in 2020 to provide more billions for the agency. He said, 
"If you measure it (the agency's work) against what was known and what had been accomplished then versus what’s been done since, you can make a case, for sure. If you measure it against the promises made at the time, though, things look bad. And that informs how you’re going to campaign for renewal: do you point at what’s been done and make the argument that it’s been a success, or do you promise them miracle cures again, because now they just have to be around the corner after all this work, eh?"
Lowe's article received comments from nine readers, who appear also to be researchers. One, who was identified as Miguel Sanchez, wrote, 
"Just at my small CA research institute, the amount of poor science that has been funded by CIRM is staggering. I would say that roughly half the CIRM money we have received has gone to research programs that are prima facie bad science but the PIs are well connected so hey shut up. I don’t think any outright fraud has been published, but the taxpayers of CA are for damn sure not getting their moneys worth on these investments here."
Sanchez did not further identify his employer. The agency's list of grantees did not contain Sanchez's name. 
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