Sunday, November 05, 2017

The California Stem Cell Story: Key to Extending the Life of a $3 Billion Agency


An Asterias video carried by KQED as part of its story on a CIRM-backed stem cell therapy. 

Just before Halloween, the $3 billion California stem cell agency chalked up another PR score with a long, favorable piece on a public television station that covers the San Francisco Bay area.

The story focused on a potential therapy for spinal cord injury developed by Asterias Therapeutics, Inc., of Menlo Park, Ca. The audience for the story was also critically important -- millions of voters who may well be asked to provide more billions for the stem cell agency, which is slated to run out of cash in mid 2020.

The piece by David Gorn carried caveats, but it also used quotations such as "incredibly exciting" and phrases such as "truly remarkable." And it noted -- relatively high in the story -- that the research is backed by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the stem cell agency is formally known.

Gorn wrote,
"The trial is legitimate. It’s partially funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state’s stem cell agency; well-known spinal experts are participating; and the FDA has certified the treatment as one that preliminary clinical evidence indicates has the 'potential to address unmet medical needs' related to a 'serious or life-threatening disease or condition.'"
The good news about the Asterias therapy has been written about before. But it is far from a topic that is talked about at California breakfast tables. 

The agency's activities -- good, bad or indifferent -- are well out of the coverage of the mainstream media, a sharp change from its early days in 2005 and 2006. Raising its profile -- favorably -- is a daunting task given that science writers have virtually vanished from the mainstream media -- all part of the shrinking world of today's journalism. 

In the last couple of years, however, the agency has stepped up its funding of clinical trials, which are the last stage before a therapy is approved for widespread use. Although clinical trials can take years to complete, their initial results can resonate with the public in a way that basic research does not. Seeing a person overcome an affliction is far more compelling than watching a mouse recuperate. 

CIRM's efforts are additionally hampered by a convention in science journalism that tends to minimize the importance of sources of funding. In most cases, it is mentioned only at the end of articles. Sometimes it is omitted entirely. 

CIRM, however, is a grand, California experiment that took up the cause of stem cell research when it was suffering from a lack of attention from risk averse companies and a lack of support from the federal government. Many of the 921 projects that the agency has funded may have never gotten off the ground without support from the voters of California, who created the agency in 2004 through a ballot initiative. 

CIRM additionally carries policy implications that go beyond bench science. It is the first such effort in state history, marrying big science, big academia, big business  and big politics in a unique way in California.

If the agency is to continue financing research to the tune of $300 million a year, it is almost certain to need another ballot measure. And to win voter approval once again, CIRM will need a vault filled with stories of accomplishment and human emotion that will resonate with the voters of the Golden State.

(Editor's note: The next to last paragraph is slightly rewritten from an earlier version of this item.)
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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:14 AM

    Asteria has had that truly remarkable story for almost ten years, even a few years before CIRM gave Geron the big money, still can’t get out of safety trial or produce anything new, what’s so incredibly exciting about, besides them? The immunotherapy is quite hot now, both in CIRM and NIH, and all over the news, quite synchronized for some reasons. But you have to go to meetings or conferences to ask very specifically, very forcefully, risk a lot to get the answer for the key data of the therapy sometimes, the efficiency to target cancer cells only around 0.1 or 0.2%, which is basically saying no efficiency at all. CIRM is said a stem cell agency, but they actually treat stem cell researchers & scientists pretty bad, such as giving extremely difficult time for grant award, only employing as long-term postdoc, low salary, no benefits, no position, no promotion, no research ownership, no recognition. But without any science, their small molecule is no different from the diet soda, won’t do any good to their knees. CIRM did themselves for pops of their balloon awards, no one else to blame.

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