Monday, November 16, 2020

California's $5.5 Billion Stem Cell Boost: The Journal Nature Reports on "Split" Views, Conflicts and Priorities

The internationally respected journal Nature today took a look at the $5.5 billion refinancing of California's stem cell research program in an article that is not likely to please its supporters. The headline on the piece said:

"California's vote to revive controversial stem-cell institute sparks debate

"The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine will receive billions in state funding — but some scientists oppose the plan."

The first paragraph of the article said, "(S)cientists are split over whether the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) in Oakland is a worthwhile investment for the US state — or for the field of stem-cell research."

In significant ways, the article by senior reporter Nidhi Subbaraman echoed important elements of an examination of CIRM that Nature published in 2008. The journal, in fact, warned at the time of "cronyism" at the agency. (See Nature's editorial here and the article by Erika Check Hayden here.)

Today's latest article in Nature said,

"(C)ritics of CIRM are concerned about oversight at the state agency, which has faced complaints about potential conflicts of interest among its board members for years. They also point out that the field has grown and now receives federal support, making state funding hard to justify — especially amid a pandemic that has imperiled California’s economy."
Comments about priorities and the failure of the $5.5 billion measure (Proposition 14) to correct governance flaws at CIRM were also carried by Nature. Subbaraman wrote,
"'Unfortunately, Proposition 14 sets a bad example for the use of public money for the advancement of science,' says Zach Hall, a neurobiologist who led CIRM as its first president between 2005 and 2007."

Nature continued,

"'You could argue that California would do better, economically and scientifically, to have a CRISPR institute,' Hall says, arguing that the revolutionary precision gene-editing tool is better placed to benefit from such a huge infusion of cash."

 Subbaraman quoted another former top level scientist at CIRM.

"'As scientists, everybody always welcomes additional funding,' says Arlene Chiu, former director of scientific activities at CIRM. 'But as a Californian, one wonders if there are better ways to do this.'"

Nature mentioned a $700,000 study of the agency by the Institute of Medicine in 2012, which recommended a major restructuring of CIRM along with steps to deal with its conflicts of interest, which the IOM regarded as a serious problem. 

The California Stem Cell Report, which has followed the agency since 2005, has analyzed CIRM's awards and reported earlier this year that 79 percent ($2.1 billion) has gone to institutions with links to members of CIRM's governing board. Members of the board cannot vote on grants to their institutions, but they control the direction of the agency and approve plans for all award rounds.

Most of the recommendations by the IOM were not implemented by CIRM or Proposition 14. Nature interviewed one of the members, Cato Laurencin, of the IOM panel that spent months examining CIRM, which financed the study.

Subbaraman wrote,

"'It is very exciting that Prop. 14 passed and that CIRM will continue its funding,' says Cato Laurencin, a biomedical engineer at the University of Connecticut in Farmington, who is not funded by the institute. 'This field is at a bit of an inflection point in terms of our understanding of stem-cell science.'"

Subbaraman's piece included comments from Robert Klein, the real estate developer who sponsored Proposition 14 and poured millions into the campaign for it. Klein was also responsible for writing the 17,000-word measure.

The Nature article said,

"Responding to the criticisms, Klein says he crafted the proposal with the guidance of multiple groups of experts, and kept the mandate deliberately broad to allow for flexibility as the field grows. 'There's an intent here,' he says, 'to have the agency be responsive to the development of science.'"

1 comment:

  1. David- I wouldn't call this a debate, but it was good to be in a news article with Zach Hall and Arlene Chiu, two people who I greatly admire. I haven't kept my opinions of CIRM Part One's flaws a secret. My work benefited greatly from CIRM funding ($22 million as PI), so luckily my personal opinions didn't affect my success as a scientist. Stem cell scientists should not be afraid to participate in policy development in CIRM Part Two- there are opportunities for new cases of the problems that Zach Hall pointed out, and it's in our own interest to give CIRM feedback as they evolve.


Search This Blog