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Stem cell agency nears $5 billion ballot plan

A laboratory assistant examines stem cells used in cancer research. (Photo: Science Photo, via Shutterstock)

Directors of the California stem cell agency on Thursday virtually endorsed a plan to stave off its financial death, pinning their hopes on a possible $5 billion bond measure and a private fundraising effort to bring in an additional $222 million.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, expects to run out of cash for new awards in late 2019 because of limits in the ballot measure that created it in 2004.

The 2004 campaign led voters to believe that miraculous stem cell cures were right around the corner.

Robert Klein, who led the 2004 initiative campaign, appeared before the governing board meeting and touted the new bond proposal. The Palo Alto real estate investment banker told directors that California had a “moral imperative” to continue its stem cell work. He said, “This is California’s contribution to the future of medicine….This is the bridge to the future of health care.”

No vote was taken on endorsement of a ballot measure that has yet to be written or qualified for the ballot. But no objection was raised by board members to moving forward on what Thomas called the best option.

Under that scenario, Klein would lead a new, $5 billion initiative that would require hundreds of thousands of voter signature to qualify for the November 2020 ballot. Then it would require raising roughly $50 million to run a successful campaign, Klein told the California Stem Cell Reportlast month.

The $222 million fundraising effort is already underway and would continue until the end of 2019, with the expectation that it would provide bridge funding until voter approval of the new, multibillion dollar bond measure.

Klein told directors that 70 percent of California voters favor continuing funding of the agency. However, last month he declined a request by the California Stem Cell Report for a copy of the poll or the name of the firm that conducted it.

The 2004 campaign led voters to believe that miraculous stem cell cures were right around the corner. The agency has yet to help finance a treatment that is in widespread use. But it has currently invested $300 million in 26 clinical trials, the last stage before a proposed therapy can be certified for general use. Trials, however, can take years.

The agency is funded by money that the state borrows — bonds. The authority to issue those bonds is expiring, and the agency is down to its last $269 million.

A fallback funding scenario would involve asking the legislature to place a bond measure on the ballot. There was no discussion of that today but it would involve negotiating with lawmakers and possibly making major changes in the way CIRM operates.

Prior to discussion of the bond measure, directors approved $68 million in cuts to the size of awards so that more awards could be made over the next two years. They also approved spending $270 million on awards next year, including $130 million on awards related to clinical trials, $30 million for research bridging the gap between the clinic and basic research and $10 million for basic research.


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