Thursday, December 03, 2020

Save the Goose: California's Stem Cell Story and the 'Army of 900'

Is the stork bringing stem cell billions?

More post-election coverage is trickling out regarding the activities of the $12 billion California stem cell agency, including a lengthy and compelling piece in the Los Angeles Times, the state's largest circulation newspaper. 

The hitch is that the Times piece does not mention the stem cell agency until the 21st paragraph, a fact that carries more weight than the 40 words in the paragraph itself. 

The article in the Times, written by columnist Sandy Banks, was not really about CIRM per se. But it was a story that might not have been told without a $13 million check from CIRM. 

The piece dealt with sickle cell disease. Banks' entry point was a patient named Evie Junior, whose harrowing experiences are certain to resonate with nearly all the paper's readers. 

Banks wrote,
"As a child, (Junior) grew accustomed to frequent hospital stays. But the disease got progressively worse as he moved through his teens; the bone pain was so disabling, he often had to be sedated with heavy-duty opioids."
Banks continued,
"At one point, the bones in both his legs were so damaged by the disease, doctors thought he might not ever walk normally again. Junior battled back."
Banks wrote,
“'I want to be cured of this disease,' he said. 'And I wish the world was more understanding about the people who are struggling with it.'”
Junior is a patient in a UCLA clinical trial led by Donald Kohn, whose research has been supported by a total of $52 million from the stem cell agency -- a figure not noted in the story. 

The stem cell agency comes into the story ever so briefly at paragraph 21. "The trial is funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the stem cell agency created by voters in 2004 and infused with $5.5 billion in new research money by voters who narrowly approved Proposition 14 this fall," the Times reported.

That is the first and last mention of California's stem cell program in the Times' story. However, that is better treatment of CIRM than is found in most stories in the media over the last few years -- the ones that deal with accomplishments tied to the agency's cash. (See here and also here.) The articles rarely mention where the money comes from. It could be flown in by stork, for all the readers know. 

Why is this important? The answer has to do with CIRM's reliance on tenuous, ballot-box financing and the sustainability of the California stem cell program.  The situation should be of interest to a little known state entity, which is the only state panel that has a legal charge to review the stem cell program.  

The panel is the Citizens Financial Accountability and Oversight Committee (CFAOC). It was created by the same ballot initiative that established the stem cell agency 16 years ago. Last month, at the CFAOC's once-a-year meeting, its members urged the agency to make itself better known. 

Proposition 14 saved the agency from financial extinction. But the measure was a squeaker, and it set the stage for another life-or-death ballot initiative. The money from Proposition 14 runs out in about 11 years. No other source of funding is provided. If CIRM goes to the ballot again in less than a decade or so, it will need a strong base of support from California voters, 8.2 million of whom voted last month to cut off funding for CIRM.

Building a solid base takes years. It also requires something of a change involving the scientific community and science journalism, which is a big ask. The tradition in scientific journals regarding funding is to relegate mention of the sources of money to a tiny footnote as if it were not the lifeblood of research.

Science writers -- the few that now exist in the mainstream media -- follow that ancient and tired public tradition of ignoring what makes research happen. They focus on "exciting" results from the bench and clinic -- not the "filthy lucre" that pays scientists, their institutions, the post-docs who labor behind the microscopes, the equipment suppliers and keeps the lights on.

Recipient institutions write the news releases -- the starting point for most journalists -- without mentioning the many, many billions that taxpayers (state and federal) have provided. Even the stem cell agency itself does not mention dollar amounts in its blog items dealing with significant results from CIRM research. (For an example, see this item from the agency's blog on the UCLA/Kohn sickle cell trial, which CIRM is funding with $13.1 million. That figure is not directly revealed in the blog item.)

Like most state agencies, CIRM is ignored by the media with only occasional exceptions. Its activities are not well known. That is not likely to change over the next decade despite the best efforts of CIRM's tiny staff. The exception would be a major or even minor scandal or development of a major breakthrough that would resonate with the people of California.

The folks in the media have a vast array of topics to cover, all of which CIRM competes with for attention. The news industry is, in fact, overwhelmed by matters that need public scrutiny: schooling for children, jobs for parents, affordability for housing, vaccines for Covid-19, homelessness, climate change, wildfires and much, much more. Meanwhile, the industry is
 struggling with its own sustainability issues, laying off thousands of reporters, closing outlets and desperately searching for new business models.

Breaking through this wall of issues to generate favorable, regular coverage of the stem cell agency's good works is a herculean task. And so far, the reality is that CIRM's good works are quite minor in terms of how they affect the lives of the vast majority of the people in California. 

The CIRM team, from top to bottom, has provided 
a prodigious amount of positive information that can resonate with the public. Building positive relationships with voters, however, is a long-term task that requires commitments that go well beyond CIRM's stalwart staffers, who currently weigh in at only 33 for a multibillion dollar program. 

CIRM has major budget and legal limitations, courtesy of Proposition 14. Its outreach team is small, again an outgrowth of ballot initiatives. Nonetheless, CIRM has a potential army of more than 900 available plus more in the future, given the agency's expansive, new responsibilities authorized by Proposition 14. And that doesn't count the patient advocates or their allied organizations.

The army of 900 consists of the researchers and institutions that have received cash from CIRM -- all potential missionaries who can carry the CIRM message from Yreka in the north to Calexico in the south. 

The institutions could highlight CIRM funding in their news releases, instead of burying or omitting it. Researchers could reach out regularly to the various affected communities to help keep the cash flowing. Grantees could pony up $2,000 each and send it off to a new, broad-based nonprofit that might be called something like "Friends of CIRM."

But more immediately, the army of 900 could -- one by one -- resolve to make six new contacts in 2021 with the public or media to tell the CIRM story. Doing so would serve science and CIRM not to mention themselves.

The next statewide election best suited for approval of another bond measure is fast approaching. It is only eight years away. That is much less time than it takes to complete the preclinical work and clinical trials needed for a federally approved stem cell treatment, which is, ultimately, the only thing that voters really want. 

If the army of 900 needs an inspirational motto, it could be something like "Save The Goose."  You know, the one that lays the Golden Eggs. It is better than relying on the stork. 

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