Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Exploring California's Stem Cell Future: A Start Today on the 16th Floor in Oakland

OAKLAND, Ca. -- "Phantom equity," the affordability of $1 million cures, maximizing returns to the state and conflicts of interest -- all that and more was on the table today at the $3 billion California stem cell agency.

The occasion was a discussion of "ideas for enhancement" by some of the directors of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known. 

This was more than simply kicking around possibilities. The meeting was called because the agency expects to run out of money for new awards later this year.

Its hopes for financial survival rest largely on a possible $5 billion bond initiative on the November 2020 ballot. Writing an initiative also means an opportunity to improve agency operations. To pass an initiative, California voters would also need to be inspired by the work the agency has done and how it will do even better in the future. 

So the governing board put together today's session to hash over ideas, starting with a 10 page list of initial thoughts. No decisions were reached, however. The discussion will carry on next Thursday at a meeting of the full board, which will also be held in CIRM's 16th floor offices here. But internally the agency plans to begin to explore some of the areas in more depth.

The implications of changes could have a major impact not only on California researchers but biotech businesses looking for possible products that could generate profits, preferably large ones.

One area of concern by CIRM directors was maximizing the return to the state for its $6 billion investment, which includes the interest on the $3 billion borrowed for the CIRM program. One of several suggestions included the use of "phantom equity," a loose term that implies having an investment but not ownership in a company that is tied to the value of its shares.  (CIRM is barred from actually owning stock.)

At the same time, directors also said they did not want to raise financial obstacles that would stop biotech firms from turning CIRM research into cures.

CIRM Director Jeff Sheehy, who has served on the board since its inception in 2004, brought up affordability and access suggestions by the man who led the 2004 campaign, Robert Klein. 

In a recent interview with the California Stem Cell Report, Klein said he was interested in seeing more stringent requirements to assure that state-backed therapies are available to all.  Esimates of costs of some legitimate stem cell treatments have ranged up to $1 million or more. 

Another subject of some discussion was the matter of perceived conflicts of interest involving the current structure of the CIRM board. About 90 percent of the awards made by CIRM have gone to institutions with links to members of the board. While some board members acknowledged the importance of perceptions, they said no conflicts of interest have actually occurred. 

A proposed initiative will have to be filed late this year in order to qualify for the November 2020 ballot. In the interview with Klein, he said he was looking at filing around the middle of September. Sphere: Related Content

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