Wednesday, September 16, 2020

CIRM Board Member Calls Proposition 14 'Fatally Flawed' and 'Unaffordable"

The San Diego Union-Tribune this morning carried an op-ed piece by a long-time director of the California stem cell agency that said this fall's $5.5 billion ballot stem cell ballot measure is "unaffordable, unnecessary and fatally flawed." 

The article was written by Jeff Sheehy, an HIV/AIDS patient advocate member of the agency's board and who was also chair of the board's Science Subcommittee. He has served on the board since the agency was created in 2004 and funded with $3 billion that is now nearly gone. 

The ballot measure, Proposition 14, would save the agency from financial extinction. 

Sheehy's column began:
"It must seem odd that someone who has spent countless hours over the last 15 years as a member of the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) would oppose Proposition 14, which seeks to provide $5.5 billion in new funding for the stem-cell agency. While I value CIRM and its work to date, Proposition 14 commits California to spending money it does not have — $7.8 billion including interest for research that is already well-funded. Plus, CIRM’s pre-existing flaws are actually exacerbated by new provisions in the measure."

(The stem cell agency is officially known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.) 

Sheehy's views are not entirely unknown, but the newspaper piece reaches a significantly different and larger audience. Plus San Diego is a hotbed of biotech. Its institutions and businesses have benefited mightily from funding by the agency.

UC San Diego has received $232 million, Salk Institute $53 million, Scripps Research Institute $51 million, the Sanford Consortium $43 million and Viacyte, Inc., $72 million. Among businesses supported by CIRM, Viacyte is No. 1. 

Sheehy said,
"And after spending all of that money, not a single U.S. Federal and Drug Administration-approved product has materialized on which CIRM’s funding played an important role." 
 Sheehy cited the financial costs of the agency as one major reason for his opposition to Proposition 14.  Combined with the $3 billion in state bonds provided in 2004, Sheehy said, 
"Proposition 14 will add at least another $260 million a year in annual repayments. That means California taxpayers will be on the hook for $587 million a year for stem-cell research. Remember state imperatives such as education, health care and housing are not only chronically under-resourced, but with a looming deficit, will be starved for funding because bonds must be repaid first. Cuts have already happened and more are likely on the way. Critical needs will go unfunded."

Sheehy also said that Proposition 14 fails to fix "severe flaws" in the measure that created CIRM. including the "absurd requirement" for a super, super-majority of the legislature to make even tiniest corrections in the existing law. 

He said the state is not receiving an adequate financial return on CIRM-funded inventions. He said "in practice" the provisions of Proposition 14 would undermine existing CIRM rules about "access and fair pricing." He said,
"It would require that any returns from the state’s investment in new therapies are given back to pharmaceutical and biotech companies, thus freeing them from any price restraints since CIRM will be making up the difference. This change is a blatant giveaway to those companies."
Sheehy concluded, 
"Unaffordable, unnecessary and fatally flawed, Proposition 14 is unsupportable. If California is going to continue to spend billions to fund stem-cell research, the Legislature should draft a new measure that does it the right way."
Sheehy said the San Diego newspaper solicited the article. Sheehy was the lone dissenting vote in June when the CIRM board voted to endorse Proposition 14.  His views on the proposition have been aired at some length on the California Stem Cell ReportThe text of his comments last October can be found here. The remarks in June can be found here.


Read all about California's stem cell agency, including Proposition 14,  in David Jensen's new book. Buy it on Amazon:  California's Great Stem Cell Experiment: Inside a $3 Billion Search for Stem Cell Cures. Click here for more information on the author.

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