Sunday, June 02, 2019

Proven Value -- California's Stem Cell Agency Garners Praise in State's Largest Newspaper

California's $3 billion stem cell agency scored a significant media win this morning with an endorsement from one of its harshest critics, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist in the state's largest circulation newspaper, the Los Angeles Times.

Michael Hiltzik, who has written two books on massive public projects, wrote in the Times,

"California’s stem cell program has proved its value to the state and to science. It has earned the opportunity to show what it can achieve with an additional 10 years of life and billions more."
Hiltzik's piece appeared this morning in the print version of the newspaper, which says it has a readership of 2.1 million in the print version alone on Sundays. Hundreds of thousands more would be added online, where the column surfaced on Friday. 

Hiltzik began his column with some very bright news for the agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM). He said that Jonathan Thomas, chairman of the agency, told him that a CIRM-funded cure is headed for the marketplace. Hiltzik described it as "a major achievement."

He wrote,

"A stem cell-based cure developed by a team at UCLA for a rare disease — a 'bubble baby' disease that deprives children of a functioning immune system — is on a path toward expected approval by the Food and Drug Administration as early as next year. It would be the first treatment funded by the program to reach the market."
The achievement would come as the agency faces what Hiltzik called an "existential inflection point." CIRM expects to run out of cash for new awards later this year. The agency was created by voters in 2004 with $3 billion that the state borrowed.

The agency's existence depends on whether voters approve an additional $5 billion in additional bonds that would come from a yet-to-be-written ballot measure on the November 2020 ballot. Voters will need to be convinced that the agency has not frittered away its original $3 billion.

Hiltzik noted the agency's "ups and downs," including hype, conflicts of interest concerns and the affordability of stem cell therapies. He said a new ballot initiative offers an opportunity to make improvements in CIRM's operations.

Hiltzik wrote, 
"Klein told David Jensen of the California Stem Cell Report that he is contemplating a provision in the next initiative for “funding the infrastructure to work on access, to work with insurance companies, to work with Covered California, to work with Medicare, to make sure that there’s access, to make certain that public hospitals and public clinics in California get discounted prices.” That would be worthwhile, if it can be done."
Like most state agencies, CIRM labors invisibly. Its story and value proposition receive little public attention despite its attempts at ground-breaking science. Reporters are rarely seen at its meetings. Few articles are written about its affairs. 

That will change somewhat come the 2020 election season. However, media coverage will be dominated by national politics since it will be a presidential election year.  Given the scarce resources of the media nowadays -- along with other, expected, pressing California matters in the 2020 election -- stem cell research is unlikely to be on any front page (print or electronic) except infrequently, at best. 

Nonetheless, Hiltzik's column will be one of the key pieces that other journalists will dredge up electronically next year as they research ballot initiatives. And how the Times and Hiltzik have framed CIRM's work will be an important element in how other news stories are shaped. 

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