Sunday, September 25, 2005

Too Much Inside-The-Box Thinking From CIRM

Every other day – at least during non-hurricane season – a stem cell news story seems to pop up with quite some regularity. Often enough that some might think that stem cell research is commonplace.

Just how uncommon it actually is was highlighted recently by The Economist magazine in a piece that makes clear the opportunities and challenges faced by the California stem cell agency.

The Economist article (Sept. 22 edition) cites a report by Michael Steiner and Nils Behnke, consultants with Bain & Company that forecasts only a $100 million market for stem cell therapies by 2010, rising to $2 billion by 2015. That contrasts with some reports that predict a $10 billion market by 2010.

The Economist says Bain's predictions are convincing.

"According to Bain's estimates, there are now roughly 140 stem-cell-related products in development, for various forms of cancer, liver disease and other conditions. But more than four-fifths of these projects are in early-stage development, where many a gleam in a scientist's eye dies, and still far from the clinical studies where promising new treatments can also still falter. In addition to these scientific hurdles, the field is fraught with ethical debate over some of its most promising areas, such as the use of stem cells from embryos and therapeutic cloning," the magazine wrote.

Steiner estimated that slightly more than "$1 billion was spent on stem-cell work last year, a mere 1% of global spending on health-care R&D. More than four-fifths of that investment came from governments. Venture capital, the traditional engine of biotechnology, is remarkably scarce in stem cells. Only $50 million was pumped into the field last year, as private investors look for safer bets in more developed products with larger markets, where regulation and patent protection is more clearly defined," the magazine said.

Given the $1 billion figure, that would make CIRM's probable $300 million a year pretty hefty. It would be a figure large enough to have a significant impact on stem cell research and its practices, including the possibility of changing them So far CIRM has been in a get-along, go-along mode, too timid to challenge the sacrosanct, closed-door, we-know-best attitude of the scientific community and its business allies. Yes, it is difficult and risky to make changes in the comfortable practices of old. But, as stem cell chairman Robert Klein likes to point out, 59 percent of California voters said emphatically that they are fed up with inside-the-box thinking when they approved Prop. 71.

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