Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Look at Whether California's Stem Cell Agency Can Carry the Day Two Years From Now

One of California's more respected news operations today posted an overview of the state's $3 billion stem cell research agency, asking the question:
"Should California Voters OK $5 Billion More for Stem Cell Research?"
The piece by David Gorn on KQED's web site recapped the history of the program, its current condition and included comments from Robert Klein, the man behind the $5 billion proposal and who is often regarded as the father of the agency.

Barbara Koenig
 UCSF photo
Also included were comments from folks not always heard from publicly in the discussions about the agency. Quoted was Barbara Koenig, head of the bioethics program at UC San Francisco, who said she supports stem cell research but voted against the ballot measure that created the agency in 2004. She said,
“I didn’t like the overhyping of the immediate idea that there were cures around the corner.  I think we need to be honest about how we’re investing in research.”
Gorn continued,
"Ask Koenig how she might use that proposed $5 billion differently, and she responds with a moment of stunned silence.
"'Oh my, so many things,' she said. 'I would try to figure out how to make sure every child in California has access to basic health services, nutrition, clean water . . . not just make high-priced products, but to improve public health.'
"She said stem cell research privileges these quick-fix biotech approaches, which may make a lot of money but may not benefit the general public.'". 
Gorn's piece had some reach into the general public in the Golden State. In addition to its online news site, the San Francisco-based KQED operates a public TV station including news and  a public radio station with syndicated programming throughout the state. A version of today's story is expected to run next week on KQED's California Report, which the station says reaches 775,500 persons each week.

Gorn's report was pretty much down the middle, exploring the expectations for cures that emerged from the 2004 campaign directed by Klein, who also oversaw the writing of the initiative. His view is that that agency has "out-achieved" the promises of the campaign. Gorn wrote that Klein said that the campaign "never promised cures during the lifetime of the stem cell agency, only progress toward attaining them."

The governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, as the agency is formally known, has all but endorsed Klein's current plan to place another initiative on the 2020 ballot, a presidential election year that will generate the large turnout that tends to favor bond measures.

Bonds -- money that the state borrows -- are the only significant source of cash for the agency. Ironically, the measure that created the agency -- also provided the seeds of its death by terminating its bonding authority after a specified period. Today the agency is down to its last few hundred million.

Zev Yaroslavsky, UCLA photo
Bonds additionally are usually used for long-lived assets such as roads and buildings and roughly double the cost of the research to taxpayers because of the interest expense. 

Gorn concluded with a comment from Zev Yaroslavsky, an authority on state politics and government at UCLA, as saying  that even if voter attitudes are highly favorable toward stem cell research that may not be enough to carry the day.

Yaroslavsky said,
"People do see stem cell research as something they have a stake in, but you’re going to have to explain what we got with the first $3 billion. I suspect their case with the voters will be that we need to keep momentum going. But the question is, ‘Will they buy it?’"

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