Thursday, February 09, 2012

A $25 Million 'Cautionary Tale': CIRM and Geron

California's $25 million venture into the financing of what once was the first hESC clinical trial in the nation serves as a "cautionary tale" for states that use taxpayer dollars to boost technology, according to a New York public policy expert.

The comments by James W. Fossett, who directs the Rockefeller Institute of Government health, Medicaid studies and bioethics research programs, come midway through an Institute of Medicine examination of the performance of the $3 billion California stem cell agency. Its directors are also currently involved in a revision of of the agency's strategic plan.

Writing on the Rockefeller Institute's web site, Fossett analyzed the fallout from Geron's decision last fall to abandon its clinical trial after it determined the effort was too costly. Just three months earlier, the California stem cell agency had signed a $25 million loan agreement with Geron.

Fossett said,
"For the many states using taxpayer dollars to stimulate jobs in a wide range of technologies, this is a cautionary tale."
He wrote,
"(Geron's) decision has attracted widespread opprobrium from bloggers, stem cell advocacy groups, bioethicists and more than a few newspaper columnists — one blogger called it the 'stem cell misstep of the year.'

"This disapproval has also spilled over onto the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) — the state agency that operates the $3 billion California stem cell research program."
He continued,
"CIRM is coming under considerable political pressure to produce viable therapies to justify the large amount of money it’s been spending, and some have interpreted its hasty involvement with Geron as motivated by the desire to have something concrete to brag about."
Fossett said, however,
"There may be less here, however, than all the rhetoric would suggest. While Geron’s trial had acquired a lot of symbolic baggage because of its status as a 'first,' the decision to pull the plug only reflects one decision by one company about one therapy. The company was looking at having to spend a lot more money over a long period to get the therapy through the clinical trials process for what would likely be a small return.

"The political difficulties that Geron’s withdrawal have caused CIRM, however, have lessons for states proposing to spend significant amounts on biotechnology and other research in hopes of stimulating economic growth. Spending money on research intended to develop new therapies is highly risky. The science is difficult, expensive and evolves at a rapid pace that is difficult to integrate with earlier understandings. There are considerable cultural, political and financial obstacles to getting new products out of the lab and into the clinic."
Fossett suggested several approaches that might ease some of the risks. He cited the 2010 CIRM external review report that recommended adjusting priorities. Fossett said,
"States might experiment with providing more support to biotech companies and entrepreneurs with successful track records and less to basic research, which could increase the odds of short-term success."
At last month's CIRM board meeting, directors engaged in what CIRM is inclined to call a robust discussion of priorities for basic research vs. more focused funding for driving therapies into the clinic.

Fossett cited another external review recommendation that CIRM seek out research with a "high probability of clinical success that could 'come from either inside or outside CIRM-funded research, perhaps out of industry and even from outside of California.'" 

Fossett additionally mentioned the use of venture capital techniques that would give states "a chance to participate in the (financial) benefits of successful therapies."

Nonetheless, he wrote,
"Most products and most companies will likely continue to fail."

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