Thursday, September 10, 2015

Parkinson's Advocates Dismayed by California Stem Cell Agency Action

This is a Summit4stemcell video prepared following an emotional protest at the July meeting of the board of  the California stem cell agency.

Lack of speed, openness protested
Agency cites cost issues
Patient-CIRM relationships unique
A group of Parkinson’s patients from San Diego is less than pleased today with a move by the $3 billion California stem cell agency that the group says will stall efforts to secure much-needed funding for a possible cure for the disease. 

The events this week follow an emotional protest at an agency board meeting in Oakland in July and highlight the often intense relationship between patient advocates and the stem cell agency – not to mention the pressure on the agency to move fast to find cures.

Anger and the Parkinson's symptoms of trembling and speech difficulties marked the protests. One patient advocate, Jenifer Raub of San Diego, said it was "outrageous" that an award round being discussed at the meeting would not provide funding until possibly 2017.

The patient advocate group, Summit4stemcell, had planned to address the stem cell agency board again at a Sept. 24 meeting scheduled to be held in San Diego. However, yesterday the group was told that the meeting would not be held in their city. Instead the session was being turned into a teleconference meeting and would be only about one hour long. Most in-person board meetings last much of the day.

Responding to questions from the California Stem Cell Report, Sherrie Gould, executive director of the Summit group and a nurse practitioner, said in an email,
Sherrie Gould, Scripps Health photo
“We are both confused and disappointed that this PUBLIC (Gould’s capitalization) meeting has been essentially cancelled.  We were prepared to talk with the ICOC (the agency board) and answer all questions about our patient advocacy movement (Summit4stemcells) and our research….
“Unless we can be present in front of the CIRM board, Summit's strong voice is diminished.  Being physically present in human form is always more effective than a teleconference. Delays, which we realize are a part of any government associated agency, are devastating to people suffering from the progressive symptoms of Parkinson's disease.” 
Jeanne Loring, head of the Scripps stem cell program in La Jolla, also voiced her displeasure in an email to Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), as the agency is formally known.

She wrote,
“CIRM has rather pulled the rug out from under the patient advocates. These meetings are supposed to be public, so how is the public going to participate if there is no access?…. I'm disappointed and the Parkinson's patients are exceedingly disappointed.  The Parkinson's group is trying to find out the resolution, if any, of the timing of the grant applications.”
The Summit group has raised $2 million to support Loring’s research and to match what CIRM might award for her effort.

Asked for comment today, McCormack said in an email,
“The reason we switched from an in-person to a teleconference board meeting is simple, the agenda for this meeting consisted of just a few items that could probably be handled in one hour. We can’t justify the cost of an in-person meeting in San Diego – which includes transportation for all those going there, plus hotel rooms, meals and the cost of the ballroom for the day - for one hour’s worth of business. As a state agency we are always mindful of how we spend our money so we made the change.” 
The next in-person meeting of the agency board is not scheduled until Dec. 17. But, in addition to the Sept. 24 meeting, two more teleconference meetings are scheduled between now and Dec. 17. Both are expected to be brief, routine approval of awards, if they are held at all.

Under the agency’s procedures and state law, members of the public can listen in and speak during teleconference meetings but only from the specific location from which an individual board member is participating.  

On the other hand, the in-person meetings offer an opportunity to speak face-to-face with all board members, chat with them informally during breaks and to converse directly with CIRM staff. The meetings have been an important tool for many patient advocate groups to press their cases. At times, however, their lengthy presentations have tried the patience of the agency.

The relationship between patient advocates and CIRM is notable. One of the unique features of the agency is the influence of patient advocates, particularly on its board.  Twelve sit on the 29-member panel and often play important roles. Sometimes they are the only way the board can approve awards because most of the other members have legal conflicts of interest and cannot vote.

David Higgins of San Diego is one of the patient advocate members of the board, which has a
David Higgins
specific slot for a Parkinson’s disease advocate. He was interviewed in July following the protest of the many-months delay in possible funding for Parkinson’s research. His remarks were recorded on a Summit-produced video(see at top of this item). Higgins, who is a scientist and has Parkinson's, said,
“It’s tough, it’s really tough, to be involved in the Parkinson’s community, especially to have Parkinson’s disease, and to watch things go in what seems like slow motion.”
Contacted today for additional comments, Higgins said,
“In my year at CIRM I have only encountered enthusiasm and support for patient advocacy - both from the staff as well as the board. Patient and patient advocate participation in the process is welcomed. CIRM is first and foremost about patients.”
Following the protests at the July meeting, CIRM President Randy Mills told the board he would see if there is anything he could do to speed funding. He said he would report back to the board later.

McCormack did not directly respond to a question today about whether recent, proposed changes in the award scheduling would have an impact on the Parkinson’s research.  He said only that the changes would provide more flexibility.

(The text of remarks by the various parties follow this item.)

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