Sunday, February 12, 2006

Ethics and IP Coverage Mostly Favorable To CIRM

The California stem cell agency can chalk up a plus on coverage of its Friday decisions on ethics and intellectual property.

Generally, California newspapers described the actions as setting standards that go beyond any in the United States, an assertion that not even the critics dispute. Nonetheless, say the critics, the agency could do more.

The meeting also attracted coverage by at least one Bay Area television station (KGO), NPR and the California public radio organization. But coverage by major newspapers elsewhere in the country was nonexistent. We expect to see some coverage over the standards and IP rules in the next couple of months by news organizations outside of California as the news slowly filters east.

The stories also demonstrated some confusion. One example involved a decision by the Oversight Committee concerning financial accessibility of therapies. The committee approved language to make the therapies available to California public agencies at the price paid by Medicaid, a program aimed at the poor. Some reports said Medicare, the health care program for all persons above 65, instead of Medicaid. Another report said the policies approved would become "law." In fact, they will become regulations that have the force of law. The difference is that laws require action by the legislature or voters; regulations can be enacted and changed by the agencies that issue them.

Reporter Jim Wasserman of The Sacramento Bee, who is a relative newcomer to CIRM coverage, described the impact of adoption of the Medicaid language, which replaced language that said the public agency price should be the lowest commercial US price.

"Those discounts are generally 20 to 40 percent, compared with the 40 percent for the federal government's lowest Medicaid price," Wasserman wrote.

He and other reporters noted that some of the Oversight Committee members representing patient groups were concerned about taking actions that might create economic disincentives. To put their point another way, higher potential profits will spur development of therapies that will help those represented by the patient groups.

Other members of the Oversight Committee noted that the low prices apply only in California, implying that prices paid outside of the state will subsidize care for California poor.

Reporter Terri Somers of the San Diego Union-Tribune carried a tidbit also dealing with economic disincentives. It was mentioned in terms of policies requiring the sharing of information from California-funded stem cell research.

"Joydeep Goswami of Carlsbad(CA)-based Invitrogen said such broad sharing of discoveries is eliminating avenues for commercialization. Invitrogen is a major biotechnology tool company that sells to academic research institutions," she wrote.

Sabin Russell of the San Francisco Chronicle reported some criticism of a requirement that egg donors have an adequate period of time to deliberate about their decisions. He wrote that the comment came from "Shannon Smith-Crowley, a lobbyist for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who said that the language is evocative of the 'waiting period' rules that are advocated by opponents of abortion. She said such language in the stem cell arena was 'undermining' years of work to establish that women are capable of making important reproductive decisions on their own."

The Los Angeles Times story by Rong-Gong Lin II focused on the delay in CIRM funding caused by the lawsuits against it. The decisions on ethics and sharing revenue was reported in the last two paragraphs.

The Associated Press, which distributes its product nationally and internationally, carried a non-bylined report that appeared to be a rewrite of the Los Angeles Times, to the point of using the Times phrase "in earnest" in the first paragraph. Rewriting news from "member" papers is common at The AP, and a practice they are legally entitled to under their arrangements with the papers.

Both Steve Johnson of the San Jose Mercury News and Wasserman of The Bee wrote stories Thursday and Friday mornings, laying out the issues, as well as reporting for Saturday's editions. (Johnson's story here, Wasserman's here.)

Reporter David Louie of San Francisco TV station KGO prepared a rare TV report on the agency's action. It was a middle-of-the-road piece that did say the policies reflected "best practices." Without seeing the images and hearing the tone, however, it is impossible to make a complete assessment.

Because of the nature of TV news, CIRM has attracted little coverage from those outlets. But TV remains extremely important in terms of public perception since most people get their news from electronic media – not print.

The morning of the meeting -- before action was taken -- opened with a couple of op-ed pieces as well. One was written by Sherry Lansing, Bernard Lo (co-chairs of agency's standards group) and Zach Hall, president of CIRM. The article in the San Francisco Chronicle described the agency's new policies as "the strongest embryonic stem-cell regulations in the country," going "well beyond current national standards for stem-cell research."

On the other hand, Jesse Reynolds of the Center for Genetics and Society wrote in the San Jose Mercury News that "some essential gaps remain to be filled." One example from Reynolds:

"The proposal leaves the approval of research to local committees that will be formed by, and affiliated with, the institutions doing the research. These committees will consist largely of stem-cell researchers themselves and their scientist colleagues from related fields. With this composition, the committees' sympathies and loyalties will lie with their institutions and with the research.

"What's worse, there is no oversight of these committees. Not only would the fox be guarding the hen house, but no one would be watching the fox."

He concluded:

"Too much is at stake with stem-cell research to rely on what may amount to self-regulation. If women's health is to be protected, and misuses of these powerful new technologies prevented, the local committees must be overseen by a transparent and accountable body independent of the research institutions, the CIRM, and the insider's network of scientists."

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