Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Fire, Fury and $5 Billion: A Mini Preview of a Ballot Campaign for the California Stem Cell Agency

California's stem cell research effort, which is pinning its survival hopes on a proposed $5 billion bond measure in a couple of years, was slammed in a national publication last week as a "multi-billion dollar money suck."

The column in the conservative magazine National Review, which has about 90,000 circulation and a significant online presence, was a tiny preview of the fire and fury that is likely to erupt around the likely pitch to California voters in 2020 to give more cash to the agency.

Formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the agency was created by a ballot initiative in 2004 and backed with $3 billion in state funds. It expects to run out of money for new awards by the end of next year.

Wesley J. Smith, a longtime critic of the agency, wrote in the National Review piece,
"The mendacious (2004) campaign promised Cures! Cures! Cures! with embryonic stem cells and therapeutic human cloning — even promising that disabled children would get out of their wheel chairs and walk. Good grief, campaigners also claimed that the money earned from all the coming cures would reduce California’s health-care budget.
"Some $2 billion later, none of it came to pass. Tens of millions were spent on a fancy-dancy building. Conflicts of interested have abounded. But the supposed point of the CIRM was not achieved. There have been extremely few human trials with embryonic stem cells — mostly dealing with eye conditions — and not all were CIRM-funded."
It is fair to say that Smith's characterizations omit much information about what CIRM calls its value proposition. Nonetheless, his points are likely to resonate with a substantial portion of California voters, who have seen little mainstream media coverage of CIRM. 

Even the institutions and recipients of multi-million dollar research awards regularly fail to note CIRM's contributions in their news releases about state-backed scientific discoveries. (See here and here.)

As of today, the agency has invested in 49 clinical trials, the last stage before a therapy is approved for widespread use. A discovery or treatment that would captivate the public could emerge from those trials between now and the election in November 2020. Meanwhile, given the nature of today's financially struggling media and limited science coverage, the agency and its backers are likely to find it tough to break through the news clutter and convince voters to cough up more cash.   
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