Monday, March 02, 2020

Tentacles, Railroads and California Stem Cell Finances: Looking for Greater Returns

The tentacles of railroad greed were the subject of many a political
cartoon in 19th and early 20th century California. 

California's $3 billion stem cell agency owes a "debt," you might say, to the Golden State's railroad, robber barons of the 19th century. 

The railroads were regarded as an evil "octopus," preying on helpless Californians. And the long-ago, railroad power over the state and its economy was a key reason behind a provision in the state Constitution that bars the state and its stem cell agency from owning stock in companies. 

The rationale was that buying railroad stock with taxpayer dollars amounted to unnecessary and most likely corrupt financial assistance to the "octopus" -- the old quid-pro-quo thing. 

Today the prohibition on owning stock in companies rankles some directors of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the stem cell agency is formally known.

The matter revolves around the desire to secure a better financial return on CIRM's investment in companies such as Forty Seven, Inc., whose stock has skyrocketed in the last four months. 

The agency has pumped many millions into Forty Seven, which is testing an "eat me" immune therapy aimed at destroying cancer cells. The state could realize a return on royalties at some point --  if an "eat me" treatment ever makes a profit. But meanwhile, other private investors in the company are enjoying a handsome return, if they bought Forty Seven stock at the right time and sell at the right time. 

CIRM Director Jeff Sheehy has long been concerned about finding a way to generate better financial returns on CIRM's financial support of stem cell companies, along with the basic research that that the agency backs. 

In response to a query last week, Sheehy said in an email to the California Stem Cell Report
"You're asking the right question...and a central one as voters consider more funding for CIRM. Clearly in this instance (Forty Seven's stock price hike), a lot of money will be made off research funded by CIRM. 
"What exactly is the state's cut?  Will the state see any money if (the purchase of Forty Seven by) Gilead goes through and if not, why?
 "If the problem is the inability of the state via CIRM to hold equity, why doesn't the new measure fix this so that the investment by state realizes a fair return to our taxpayers? 
"I note that Stanford will make out like a bandit on this deal, and it's ironic that the (stem cell agency) board had to force Stanford to fulfill its commitment to co-fund another project with a similar product, that btw, is also licensed to Forty Seven.  
"Stanford has received about 12.5% of CIRM's funds. With the next measure, the same percentage going to this institution will mean that Stanford will have received over $1 billion from the state.  Should we not guarantee that the state receives its full share so it can fund healthcare, schools, teachers, community colleges, mental health needs, ending homelessness etc?"
The new measure that Sheehy refers to is a proposed ballot initiative to give the agency an additional $5.5 billion. CIRM is running out of money and will begin closing its doors if voters do not approve the proposal next November. 

While the complex measure significantly broadens the scope of CIRM operations, it does not alter the state Constitution. Doing so would require more signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot (meaning more cost to the initiative backers). 

A major constitutional change could also open a significant, new opportunity to attack the stem cell program and imperil passage of the current proposal.

During its 15-year history, CIRM has not conducted a major public examination of removing the ban to generate a better payoff for the state. The fact that the ban has been around for a century may testify to the political difficulties of such a task.

As for Stanford, it is the No. 1 recipient of CIRM awards with a total of $338 million and has had a representative on the CIRM board since its inception, a situation not uncommon with other recipient institutions. The agency has rules in place to prevent legal conflicts of interest. But about 90 percent of CIRM funding has gone to institutions with board representation, according to an accounting by the California Stem Cell Report. 

Leland Stanford, Wikipedia image
A final note of irony: Stanford University was founded by Leland Stanford, one of the four robber barons of California. He and his colleagues initially earned their reputation by building the western half of the transcontinental railroad with government funding. They were paid for each mile of track they laid, generating a hasty process that did not encourage quality work. 

"In 1975 the student body of Stanford University voted to use 'Robber Barons' as the nickname for their sports teams. However, school administrators disallowed it, saying it was disrespectful to the school's founder."

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