Tuesday, November 23, 2010

California Stem Cell News: A Not-So-Good Story Line

If one is to believe Google, the top of the news today about the California stem cell agency is a story that relates how its $3 billion effort has failed to deliver on the emotion-ladened campaign promises of 2004.

The piece in the Los Angeles Times, the state's largest circulation newspaper, was ranked No. 2 in a Google news search this morning on the term “California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.” Ranked at No. 1 was a summary of the article. Yahoo news placed the Times article a tad higher than Google, declaring it was No. 1.

The story yesterday by Jack Dolan of the Times' Capitol bureau follows one earlier this month in the New York Times that warned that California voters are not likely to see a good return on their unprecedented investment in stem cell research.

Both stories highlight one of the major challenges facing the state stem cell agency, especially if CIRM seeks another $3 billion to $5 billion from voters in a couple of years.

To win approval of such a bond measure in a statewide election, it will take more than a few hundred research papers, one of the measures of success that CIRM uses. The papers may contribute to the development of the science, but voters expect more tangible results. They want to see paralyzed people walk, blindness cured and memories recovered – all of which are not likely between now and time for an election for more funding for CIRM.,

That is not to say that another bond measure is doomed, but it will take some great science and top-notch marketing – not to mention luck – to win approval of more cash for research.

The story that CIRM wants to see should be much different than Dolan's piece, which does not give the agency much to celebrate, at least in terms of PR.

Dolan wrote,
"Under (CIRM Chairman Robert Klein's) stewardship, the agency has funded research leading to hundreds of scientific papers, but scientists say marketable therapies for maladies such as cancer, Alzheimer's and spinal cord damage promised during the campaign remain years, if not decades, away."
Dolan cited the built-in conflicts of interest at CIRM. He wrote,
"'When you're talking about spending $1.1 billion dollars, there's absolutely no excuse for people making the decision to give themselves the money,' said Robert Fellmeth, executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego.

"While board members recuse themselves from voting on grants where they have a direct conflict, the mere presence of so many conflicted members is a concern, Fellmeth said. 'There is a quid pro quo atmosphere that develops, because you defer to each other.'"
Dolan additionally hammered at the high salaries at the upper levels of CIRM, a matter that resonates roundly and negatively with voters.

Little of what he wrote is new to the readers of this blog, but a piece in the Los Angeles Times reaches a new and far wider audience than that of the California Stem Cell Report. A story in the Times also stimulates additional links to the article, sometimes in a manner that does not cast CIRM in the best light.

The Scientist magazine linked to the story in a three-paragraph item that began like this:
“The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has been plagued with criticisms and doubts during its first six years in operation, yet the chairman of the institute plans to ask state voters for another $3 billion in bonds in 2014 to keep the institute up and running.”

Then there was this headline from blogger Wesley Smith: “CIRM to Try and Sucker Californians Into Letting It Borrow Even More Money." Smith wrote,
"Who cares that California is falling into the ocean fiscally?  Who cares that our taxpayers are groaning under high taxes and an astonishing level of bond debt?  Not the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine.  Like the man-eating plant in (the play) 'Little Shop of Horrors,' its appetite is insatiable.  It wants more!"
Rankings of news stories on Internet search engines, of course, change over time, sometimes in a matter of hours. But pieces such as those in the New York and Los Angeles Times will still be part of the news background for CIRM come election time. Reporters from around the state and nation will find them as part of their coverage of the bond measure. More questions will be asked. And CIRM will need to find some good answers.


  1. Anonymous5:58 PM

    Well, for $190,000 for a PR person whose comments and tone to this blog are obnoxious and who is a rather poor judge of poetry plus hundreds of thousands of dollars of outside media contracts, what else would one expect?

    Competence? Telling the real story of stem cell research in California, which is much closer to cures than the LA Times reporter has been told?

    If the job is not going to be done well, is it too much to ask that those funds go to research that would make a difference instead of the farcical waste that constitutes communications at CIRM?

  2. Anonymous8:49 AM

    So, people are wising up to the fairy tales?

    Did campaign ads for Proposition 71 violate fair trade laws?

  3. Anonymous9:45 AM

    Of the matter of California taxpayers getting scientific papers, not cures, for their money, recall the text in IPBiz:

    More importantly, the iZumi story illustrates why the CIRM approach to intellectual property (and on return on investment to California taxpayers) is fundamentally flawed. The most promising stem cell research areas will be privately funded, and disconnected from CIRM. California taxpayers won't get a return on these efforts, but will get an accounting of papers published on secondary or derivative work. Voters in New Jersey figured out that the NJ stem cell bond was more about academic empire building than about cures, and just said no, producing the first rejected NJ bond proposal in years. Maybe they figured something out that Californians are missing.


    The patent world of iPS (stem cells): Yamanaka, Bayer, and iZumi


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