Monday, January 16, 2012

Stem Cell Agency Shying Away From Another Multibillion-dollar Bond Proposal

The $3 billion California stem cell agency, which is expected to run out of cash in five years, is backing away from an attempt to win voter approval of another multibillion dollar bond measure to finance its research efforts.

The agency disclosed its new position in a document posted in connection with the meeting tomorrow of its governing board in San Diego. CIRM said,
"Although additional funding could be a possibility in the future, it would be premature even to consider another bond measure at this time. Instead, CIRM should focus its efforts on creating a platform that enables others to carry on CIRM’s work."
The statement is a sharp departure from previous discussion of mounting a ballot campaign for a $4 billion to $5 billion bond measure on behalf of CIRM.

The only significant source of cash for the agency currently is the $3 billion in bonds approved by voters in 2004. Nearly half of that is committed. The latest financial report from CIRM shows its funding of research peaking in 2017-18.

During the last year or so, former CIRM Chairman Robert Klein has repeatedly discussed another bond measure and has even more recently expressed his desire to raise funds for a new electoral campaign. Klein resigned from his post last June. The CIRM board elected Jonathan Thomas, a Los Angeles bond financier, to replace Klein, who was the agency's first chairman and who led the 2004 ballot campaign.

In 2010, the CIRM board approved spending $700,000 for an Institute of Medicine study of CIRM with the expectation that its findings would enhance the likelihood of approval of more bond funding.

The IOM study is currently underway. The blue-ribbon panel is scheduled to hold a two-day public meeting in San Francisco Jan. 24-25 as part of its assessment of CIRM performance.

CIRM largely functions below the news media's radar, but talk of a new pitch for money has triggered negative commentary. Last month, the San Jose Mercury News said in an editorial that the agency should close its doors when its cash runs out because another bond measure would siphon off much-needed money for education and other critical services already "starved" by state budget cuts.

Backing away from another bond measure could benefit CIRM by helping to remove the likelihood that its actions will be judged in the context of an electoral campaign. But the action also raises the possibility that some of CIRM's best employees may leave for better prospects given that they may not have much of a future at an agency that would appear to be going out of business – at least at its current robust level.

The CIRM document dealing with the bond measure is dubbed a "transition plan" and is required by state law.

Instead of seeking to borrow more billions, the document said,
"CIRM should focus its efforts on creating a platform that enables others to carry on CIRM’s work. Through its funding of state of the art research facilities, collaborative funding agreements, and industry engagement, CIRM has already made progress in creating this platform."
The document also raised the possibility of creation of a nonprofit organization to carry on CIRM's stem cell research, a proposal that has floated quietly for some years. Such an effort could involve raising funds from the biotech industry, which CIRM is currently trying to engage in a more friendly way.

At the top of CIRM's list of transition plan activities is creation -- both nationally and internationally -- of "Alpha Stem Cell Clinics" for delivery of therapies to patients. The clinics also would foster clinical trials and evaluate cell therapies. Additionally included are efforts to drive "follow-on funding" for CIRM projects and strengthened efforts to support industry.

Directors could alter the CIRM transition plan at their meeting tomorrow. But it was placed on the agenda by Chairman Thomas and is unlikely to see major revisions.

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