Friday, June 26, 2020

Directors of the California Stem Cell Agency Back $5.5 Billion Stem Cell Ballot Measure -- With One Exception

Directors of the financially strapped, California stem cell agency this morning endorsed a $5.5 billion bond measure to refinance the enterprise and set it on a new path for the next 10 to 15 years.

"It's a no brainer that this is a huge benefit for California and that (the agency) does just a fantastic job for curing major diseases over a period of time," said George Blumenthal, chancellor of UC Santa Cruz and a member of the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known.

Endorsement came on 21-1 vote after about a 30-minute discussion. Jeff Sheehy, a patient advocate member of the board since its inception in 2004, voted no. He did not speak out during the meeting, which heard no dissent from other board members or the public.

The board has 29 slots. Only 22 members were present for the morning. online vote. Two seats are vacant.

Sheehy released a statement to the California Stem Cell Report in which he cited a wide range of reasons for his negative vote. They included,
"(The) state assuming additional debt at the onset of a recession of indeterminate length (that could become a depression) AND the absence of the original purpose for CIRM (the no longer existing federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research funding) plus the abundant Federal and private sector funding for identical research, the failure to maximize return on investment plus a blatant giveaway to Pharma AND the handcuffs placed on the legislature."
Sheehy also said, 
"(A)fter spending all of this money ($3 billion), CIRM has yet to produce a single FDA approved product and the State has not achieved any healthcare cost savings from therapies developed by CIRM." 
(See the full text of his lengthy statement here.)

The initiative would cost California taxpayers an estimated $7.8 billion, according to official state figures. The total could be lower or higher depending on interest rates because the $5.5 billion is borrowed money. The initiative also significantly expands the scope of the agency, including a heavy emphasis on making any stem cell therapies affordable and accessible.

CIRM, however, has not helped to finance any stem cell therapies that are widely available to the public.

(Here is a link to the description of the measure by the state's legislative analyst, including its $7.8 billion cost. Here is the actual text of the more than 10,000-word proposal)

Endorsement of the proposal by the stem cell agency board was a foregone conclusion. Sheehy's dissent was not, although he expressed some concerns earlier about the measure. Directors previously had indicated support informally. Without voter approval of the proposition on Nov. 3, CIRM will begin closing its doors next fall as it runs out of its original $3 billion. 

Today's meeting also included a contingency budget to wind down CIRM, which currently has only 33 employees. Over the last 15 years, the number of employees has never numbered higher than in the mid 50s.

CIRM directors were laudatory of the measure and Robert Klein, sponsor of the proposal. Klein is leading the campaign as he did in 2004. He was also the first chairman of the agency. Speaking to the board, Klein touted economic benefits of the measure and minimized its interest costs. He said it would not detract from other state priorities, a matter of significant concern to Sheehy.

Klein said the measure is aimed at "reducing human suffering and saving the lives of those we love." (The text of his comments is being sought from the campaign.)

David Higgins, a board member/patient advocate for Parkinson's disease and who has Parkinson's, said his family includes many persons who have had the affliction.  Higgins, who choked with emotion at one point, said the efforts of CIRM are "very personal" for him.

The agency is barred by law from using state funds to support the ballot campaign, but it is permitted to provide the endorsement as it did today.

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