Friday, June 20, 2008

CIRM Directors Nix Kuehl Legislation

SAN FRANCISCO -- The California stem cell agency is preparing to oppose legislation designed to ensure that Californians have affordable access to therapies developed with taxpayer funds.

Too restrictive and premature. That was the sentiment at today's meeting of the Legislative Subcommittee of the board of the directors.

They were talking about SB1565 by Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, and Sen. George Runner, R-Antelope Valley. The measure has passed the Senate and faces a hearing in the Assembly Judiciary Committee. No lawmaker has voted against the bill.

Directors pointed out that they already have an affordable access plan in place in their regulations for CIRM-financed therapies. They argued that the legislation would require each product to go before the legislature to determine a price.

Kuehl's measure is a response in part to widespread consumer unhappiness with the high cost of health care and industry pricing of therapies. But Claire Pomeroy, a CIRM director and dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine, said that CIRM's policy "cannot overcome the dysfunction" of the healthcare system. She said the legislature should give CIRM "the opportunity to do the right thing."

CIRM President Alan Trounson said that locking affordability provisions into state law would cripple CIRM's ability to negotiate prices and drive the industry away from developing therapies for diseases with small numbers of patients.

CIRM directors also reacted sharply to a provision in the Kuehl/Runner bill that would make it easier for CIRM to finance research that does not use human embryonic stem cells. The provision seems to play into the hESC vs. adult stem cell debate. CIRM Chairman Robert Klein said that Runner said the change was "very important" to Republican members of the state Senate.

Presumably, recent research developments that demonstrated that adult stem cells can be reprogrammed to take on the pluripotent characteristics of hESC lie behind the proposed change. However, directors said much more work needs to be done before that method can be shown to provide cells that truly match the characteristics and usefulness of embryonic stem cells.

Kuehl's bill also would request a study of CIRM by an independent body that would report back to the legislature next year at this time with recommendations for changes, including dealing with the built-in conflicts of interest at CIRM. One CIRM director is currently under investigation for violating the state's conflict of interest laws. And the board of directors is dominated by members from institutions that are benefiting to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants.

Directors said that they understood that the state's Little Hoover Commission has already indicated it is going to perform the inquiry, regardless of the fate of the Kuehl bill.

Directors did not have a quorum at today's meeting and thus could not vote on a position on the legislation. However, their sentiments will come before the full board of directors next week, which is certain to oppose the Kuehl measure.

Here is the latest legislative staff analysis of the measure and the CIRM staff analysis, which we should note was well done.

We will have more later on other legislation discussed today by the Legislative Subcommittee.

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