Friday, October 30, 2020

Prop. 14 News Coverage: Los Angeles Times and Politico Take a Crack at the Stem Cell Measure

A $5.5 billion ballot measure to save the California stem cell agency from financial extinction popped up in coverage this week in the Los Angeles Times and Politico, a national political and government news service. 

Both pieces raised questions about the agency and its history, not to mention whether it fits with California's current government priorities.

In his piece, George Skelton, a longtime political columnist for the Times, the largest circulation newspaper in the state, noted that the agency was funded in 2004 with $3 billion, which is now running out. Skelton wrote, 
"That’s a ton of money for a little-noticed agency that provides a questionable state service. But many of the research projects have been very worthwhile." 
In the article, the Proposition 14 campaign, headed by Palo Alto developer Robert Klein, also continued its pattern of making exaggerated or misleading claims.  
"If we don’t continue the state funding, lots of facilities would have to close their doors,” says Kendall Klingler, the Proposition 14 spokeswoman....

"'We have more than 90 stem cell trials underway,' she says.

"The agency does have a record of some success: funding research that has led to treatments approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for blood and bone marrow cancers, for example."
Regarding the number of clinical trials funded by the research program, the agency itself only claims 64. The additional 30 or so trials are not funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is officially known. They utilize a piece of CIRM-financed research, however tiny, someplace along the way. And not necessarily a significant piece. 

The FDA treatments mentioned are not stem cell treatments, which is what was promised by the 2004 campaign. The agency has not funded any research that has resulted in a stem cell therapy that is available to the general public. 

And it is simply not accurate to say that "lots" of stem cell facilities partially financed with CIRM cash will be closing. All of them are occupied and fully in use. The recipients of the facilities grants, such as Stanford and UC San Francisco, are exceedingly unlikely to close the buildings.

Skelton concluded that CIRM has "failed to live up to its original hype." He said, 

"It was aloof to Sacramento, and not subject to oversight by the Legislature and governor. There’s been a lack of transparency.

"There was also an odor of interest conflicts among agency board members who seemed to steer grants toward their own institutions, even though they recused themselves from voting."
(In the interest of full disclosure, I worked for Skelton in the Capitol bureau of United Press International in the 1970s when he was bureau chief there.)

Over at Politico, Victoria Colliver wrote,  
"It's not clear that the Yes on 14 campaign's $15 million, even with a campaign that features actor Seth Rogen as “Stemmy the Stem Cell," will get the job done.

"'We’re running against Covid-19. That’s our real opposition,” said Robert Klein, the wealthy real estate investor and attorney who authored both measures and is the main funder of Prop. 14, along with Dagmar Dolby, the widow of inventor and sound engineer Ray Dolby.

"The differences between 2004 and 2020 are stark.

"Back then, Klein and other proponents had a ready-made argument by pointing to President W. Bush's prohibition on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, a stance supported by the religious right. In the nation's biotech capital — with an electorate dominated by Democrats and independent voters that support abortion rights — stem-cell backers made the case that California needed to step in to keep research alive.

"Many of the promises made 16 years ago, including its projections in royalties and state revenues from new treatments, have not borne out. Funding from the agency has supported more than 60 clinical trials, but CIRM has yet to fund a single stem-cell therapy approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for widespread use."

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