Thursday, August 08, 2019

The California Stem Cell Agency: 'Envy of the World, ' Hopes Too High?

The prestigious journal Nature yesterday published a piece about California's $3 billion stem cell agency that spoke of voids, envy and "double-edged swords."

The opinion piece was written by Jeanne Loring, a San Diego area
Jeanne Loring
researcher who has followed the agency for years and has been one of its beneficiaries($17 million in awards).

Reflecting on the agency's importance, she wrote,

"For the past dozen or so years, stem-cell researchers in California have been the envy of the world."
Creation of the agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), "essentially guaranteed that the state would become the center of innovation in the field," Loring declared. Its demise would leave a major void, she said.

Loring continued,
"Although its intentions were laudable, CIRM raised the hopes of the public too high. It needed catchy advertising to gain voters’ support. One of its campaign slogans was 'Save lives with stem cells.' Effective advertisements often focus on a promise and downplay shortcomings, such as the time and resources required to advance a stem-cell therapy through clinical trials to market approval. No CIRM-supported therapy has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), resulting in dashed expectations.... 
"Still, fulfilment of the campaign promise is under way. CIRM has granted funding for 56 stem-cell-based clinical trials."
At the same time, dubious and unregulated clinics that peddle stem cell "snake oil" have proliferated across the country, leading the FDA to attempt a belated takedown of some of the enterprises.

The growth of those clinics is part of "the double-edged sword that is CIRM’s legacy,"  Loring said.
"The agency has enabled fundamental science and helped to establish know-how for rigorous assessment of stem-cell therapies. Earlier this year, my colleagues and I started a biotechnology company, Aspen Neuroscience in La Jolla, California, and are raising funds for a clinical trial of a neuron-replacement therapy for Parkinson’s disease. Without the work that CIRM has done to educate investors and researchers, this would have been very difficult. 
"But the agency’s work has inadvertently helped to boost unregulated, for-profit ‘clinics’ claiming, without sound evidence, that cells derived from fat, bone marrow, placenta and other tissues can cure any disease."
Loring said,
"CIRM has regularly denounced these clinics, which existed before the institute’s creation and will persist as long as they can make money. Still, it is easy to understand how public enthusiasm would spill over to those offering quackery."
Loring noted that the agency, which expects to run out of cash for new awards this year, is hoping that voters will give provide $5 billion more via a ballot initiative in November 2020. 

Loring urged rhetorical caution in the ballot campaign.
"We must strike a balance between future potential and current reality when we talk to the public. Researchers should emphasize that even when therapies show promise in mice, they often fail to work in humans. The only way to find out — and to check for safety — is rigorous scientific testing in clinical trials."
"We need to temper public hope," Loring wrote, while regulators, including the FDA and the California State Medical Board, bring the bad actors under control. 
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