Sunday, February 12, 2012

Trounson Predicts -- 'Optimistically' -- Successful California Stem Cell Treatments in Five Years

Alan Trounson, president of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, says he is "optimistic" that some stem cell treatments developed in California will prove successful in humans in the next five years.

Trounson was quoted in The Sacramento Bee today in an opinion piece written by David Lesher, government affairs director of the Public Policy Institute of California. Lesher provided something of an overview of the agency, including pluses and minuses. He wrote,
"Those who speculate say that the most advanced stem cell treatments are still probably a decade away from becoming available to patients. And the cost to get them there will far exceed California's $3 billion investment."
But Lesher, a former political writer for the Los Angeles Times, also wrote,
"...(T)he president of the state's stem cell agency said he is 'optimistic' that at least a few California treatments will prove successful in humans in the next five years."
Lesher said,
"That may mean a genetically modified stem cell treatment to cure AIDS, (Trounson) said; it may mean a treatment that eliminates the need for some diabetics to monitor or inject insulin; there might be a treatment to restore eyesight to those suffering from a major cause of blindness.

"'These are the kind of things we need to get through,' he said. 'I hope that we have a number of them showing proof by 2015 or 2016. I'm optimistic. The caveat is that nothing is guaranteed.'"
The stem cell agency will run out of cash for new grants in 2017 and will go out of business shortly thereafter unless voters approve another multibillion dollar bond measure or it manages to secure private financing.

Lesher discussed the difficult financial environment for private financing of stem cell therapies and how it has changed since the the stem cell agency was created by voters seven years ago.
"The hope was that California's bond (financing for CIRM) would jump-start a biotech industry by building the laboratories and seeding early research to a point where private support would take over.

"But that point of commercial viability is a moving target as private investors have grown more risk averse and the regulatory path for such radical new therapies is unpredictable. So the biggest question today in the stem cell field is not whether the science will work someday. The big questions are how will we pay for it, how will regulators know when it's ready and when will it happen?"
Lesher said,
"The problem is that even the most advanced experiments in (CIRM's) translational portfolio are still a couple of years away from the same point in the regulatory pipeline where high cost and uncertainty forced Geron out of the field. And there is still no clear answer about how to resolve those same challenges, although the cost-benefit calculation will be different for other treatments."
Lesher concluded,
"Unlike high-speed rail, which continues to have strong support from the governor, the stakes surrounding California's stem cell investment have been largely invisible. That's too bad, because stem cell science is a much smaller investment for taxpayers with a greater possible return."
Our comment? In what CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas has declared as a "war" for public support, today's piece in The Bee was a bit of a victory. Although the article did mention difficult issues, it was generally upbeat about CIRM. The piece focused on the wonders of the science and bypassed many of the negatives about CIRM, including its built-in conflicts of interests and its reluctance to correct long-identified problems. Also absent was a discussion of how CIRM signed a $25 million loan agreement with Geron only three months before the company abandoned its clinical trial. That omission could be considered a PR plus for the agency. Overall, the folks at CIRM should be pleased by the article.

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