Thursday, September 06, 2018

San Francisco Chronicle: California's $3 Billion Stem Cell Program Does Not Measure Up to Voter Expectations

The San Francisco Chronicle, in a long and penetrating look at California's $3 billion stem cell agency, today said the research program has fallen "far short" of the promises made by its backers during the ballot campaign that created the effort.

Written by Erin Allday and Joaquin Palomino, the article said the agency, created by Proposition 71 in 2004, "can take credit for some notable progress," including saving the lives of children with rare immune deficiency diseases. Such efforts have been well supported by the agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

"But as thrilling as such advances are, they fall far short of what Prop. 71’s promoters promised." Allday and Palomino wrote.

"Not a single federally approved therapy has resulted from CIRM-funded science. The predicted financial windfall has not materialized. The bulk of CIRM grants have gone to basic research, training programs and building new laboratories, not to clinical trials testing the kinds of potential cures and therapies the billions of dollars were supposed to deliver."

Allday and Palomino worked on the CIRM overview for months, along with three other major pieces on stem cell therapies, both unregulated and those backed by the stem cell agency.  They reviewed the nearly 1,000 grants awarded by the agency and tracked the results, interviewing researchers and patient advocates and quantified the results.

The Chronicle series appeared as the agency nears its financial demise. It expects to run out of cash for new awards next year. The agency hopes that voters will approve a yet-to-be-written, $5 billion ballot measure in November 2020.

The Chronicle noted, however, that much of the research financed by the agency is not likely to resonate with voters.

Nonetheless, the article today contained ample information from the agency about its efforts, including its 49 clinical trials and some high profile results from those trials.  The piece posed the question of whether the nearly 14-year-old program has paid off. And it said,
"It’s not a question that can be answered simply. Science often can’t be measured in quantifiable outcomes. Failures aren’t just common, they’re necessary — it’s impossible to expect every dollar invested in research to lead down a traceable path toward success.... 
"It has helped make California a global leader in the field that’s come to be known as regenerative medicine. Anywhere significant stem cell research is taking place in the state, it almost surely has received support from CIRM."
The Chronicle quoted a member of the CIRM board who has been with it since its first days.
"'What was promised was not deliverable,' said longtime CIRM board member Jeff Sheehy, a former San Francisco supervisor. 'However, I would distinguish the promises from the impact and value. We have developed a regenerative medicine juggernaut.'"
The Chronicle also spoke with Bob Klein, a Palo Alto real estate investment banker who led the 2014 campaign.
" unapologetic about the campaign he led. Indeed, as he lines up advocates and testimonials for the coming campaign, his message is familiar: Fund this research and we will save lives. Slow it down and the consequences will be grave.
"'Do you want your son to die? Are you going to wait?' Klein asked recently. 'Is that the price you are prepared to pay?'"
Today's Chronicle piece, roughly 5,000 words long, raises a host of important issues and deals with them in a nuanced and thoughtful manner. It is must reading for all those interested in California's stem cell research effort. 

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item inadvertently omitted Palomino's name. Allday noted in an email to the California Stem Cell Report: "He played a HUGE role in putting together the CIRM story – he was basically solely responsible for collecting and analyzing the data from CIRM.")


  1. Jeanne Loring1:13 PM

    I agree with Jeff: "'What was promised was not deliverable,' said longtime CIRM board member Jeff Sheehy, a former San Francisco supervisor. 'However, I would distinguish the promises from the impact and value. We have developed a regenerative medicine juggernaut.'
    It's the infrastructure that matters. Thanks to CIRM, we have the strongest regenerative medicine program in the world, and it's the foundation for a new wave of therapies. It's inevitable, and it's here.

  2. Anonymous10:48 AM

    It’s really sad to hear about Bob’s son, Jordan. I still remember that chubby kid sitting next to me at one of the meetings in Salk’s auditorium over 10 years ago. California’s professors and researchers who have got millions of CIRM funding should feel shame about themselves and how they got the money.