Wednesday, February 19, 2020

California, Stem Cells and the Future of Human Suffering

Has California's $3 billion stem cell research agency "change(d) the future of medicine and human suffering?" 

It's a question and contention indirectly raised very briefly in a news article earlier this week published in the Long Beach Business Journal. 

While the Long Beach weekly does not have the reach of such other Southern California outlets as the Los Angeles Times, the question may well be at the heart of campaign to convince voters to approve an additional $5.5 billion for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally  known.  

Robert Klein
CIRM, created in 2004 by voters, is down to its last $27 million. It will begin to  shut down next fall if voters fail to approve the $5.5 billion measure in November. The proposed initiative will labor under a burden created by the ballot initiative campaign 15 years ago that raised expectations that stem cell cures were just around the corner. CIRM, however, has yet to finance a stem cell therapy that is approved by the federal government for widespread use. 

The Long Beach article by Alena Maschke provided a brief overview of the agency and its programs. Right at the top was a quote from Robert Klein, the Palo Alto real estate developer who is leading this year's ballot initiative campaign. He also led the effort in 2004 and was the first chairman of the agency.

Klein was also quoted as saying,

“The scientists and patient advocates in California have proven through the California stem cell initiative funding that they can change the future of medicine and human suffering. California funding has filled the gap of the federal government’s failure to fund this revolution in medicine.”
Mascke's article said Klein's efforts for stem cell research were initially triggered years ago by his concern for his son, Jordan, who had Type 1 diabetes.  The piece said, 

"In 2016, 26-year-old Jordan Klein died of complications related to the disease, two years after scientists first made significant progress on finding a treatment developed with the help of human embryonic stem cells. 

"Klein blames the federal government’s resistance to embracing stem cell research for the lack of adequate treatment options that lead to his son’s death. 'My youngest son died. If they hadn’t held it up in D.C., he would be alive,' he said. 'How many children, how many adults are going to die before they create enough stability to advance therapies that mitigate or cure these chronic diseases?'"

The Long Beach paper also tapped Aaron Levine, an associate professor at the
Aaron Levine, Georgia Tech photo
School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech. Levine was a member of the blue ribbon group that conducted a $700,000 study of the agency's work, an effort that was paid for by CIRM. 

"'CIRM stepped in to fill a gap when the National Institutes of Health was restricting its funding in this space,' Levine said. 'The research that CIRM has supported, as well as the training programs, has had quite a big impact on the field.'"

The article continued, 

"Levine also noted that the program has yet to resolve one crucial question: Who will pay for patients’ treatment with costly stem cell therapies once they’re ready to hit the market? Per-patient costs for stem cell therapies can easily reach several hundred thousand dollars and as research advances, more patients are expected to qualify.
 "'Suddenly, that’s just such a substantial sum of money that it becomes a fundamental challenge to how we pay for healthcare, how we pay for medicine in the United States,' Levine said. Subsidies for California residents, whose taxes helped pay for the research necessary to bring these cures and therapies to market, would be one option, Levine noted.

"Despite these concerns, Levine said he supports the measure to extend the program. 'Even though this is not the perfect measure, I think there’s a lot of value in CIRM and it makes sense to continue it,' he said. In the end, it will be up to California voters to decide. 

"'It largely will rise and fall on whether there’s a motivated campaign for and against it and what people who’ve never really thought about stem cell research as a state ballot issue are going to think about this particular initiative when it comes in the fall,' Levine said."

As for whether CIRM has changed the future of medicine and human suffering, some might argue that it alone has not, that other stem cell researchers around the world have been as instrumental. Others would argue that if revolutionary change has occurred, CIRM has fulfilled its mission and the people of California no longer need to fund it. 

As Levine points out, the voters of California will make the judgment in November. Their decision will come during an election that will focus intensely on presidential politics and much, much less so on the performance of the stem cell agency.  


  1. It's the infrastructure, as I've said several times. What CIRM built was the foundation for high quality regenerative medicine research and development in California. I am hiring scientists who have already trained in my lab for a year as
    CIRM interns...this allowed me to put together a dynamite team with no delays when I started a regen med company. This is CIRM's greatest contribution, and it is too valuable to lose.

  2. David, your blog is excellent.

    I am a patient advocate for stem cell therapy. While I applaud CIRM's research endeavors, I find CIRM's persistent vilification of clinics offering stem cell therapy to be misplaced, counterproductive and contrary to the best interest of patients.

    Cooperation, not condemnation, is the best way to help patients. Just because CIRM and stem cell clinics are taking parallel paths to the delivery of stem cell therapies to Americans who need them, those paths need not be in conflict.

    Rather, those paths should be mutually reinforcing and should ultimately converge at the point of serving the best interests of patients.



  3. Rahman -- Re the your comments about rogue clinics and cooperation, most of those clinics, if not all, have a well-documented record of operating without the support of medical evidence. Given that CIRM is devoted to developing therapies that are tested and will meet federal standards for widespread use, it would seem that it would not be in CIRM's best interests to become associated with treatments that do not meet those sorts of standards. Rather, to do so would severely damage the agency's reputation, the likelihood of voter approval of $5 billion more and cast dark shadows over all of its research.


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