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$5.5 billion stem cell rescue plan makes November ballot

A cancer stem cell researcher in the laboratory. (Photo: science photo, via Shutterstock)

A $5.5 billion stem cell bond measure qualified this afternoon for the November ballot, but the campaign to win voter approval is facing an array of hurdles that its supporters never envisioned last summer when they were formulating the initiative.

Call it the COVID-19 crunch. The pressures include a $54 billion hole in the state budget, looming cuts involving schools and medical assistance for the poor, unemployment now standing at more than three million and predictions by the Federal Reserve that things could get worse. Even California’s famed Rosebowl is facing losses of up to $20 million.

That is not to mention that the wealthy folks who support such things as stem cell research are also feeling a squeeze from Covid. These are the donors who are usually called upon to help finance what is predicted to be a $50 million campaign on behalf of the measure.

All in all, it is not an environment that would seem to support what some will argue is unnecessary spending.

The initiative is largely aimed at saving the state stem cell agency from financial extinction. Formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), voters provided it with $3 billion in state bonds in 2004 to finance research and development of stem cell therapies. Today that cash flow is dribbling to an end. CIRM will begin shutting its doors next fall without a major financial infusion.

Little noticed so far, however, is how the initiative will also expand the scope of the agency and allow CIRM to venture into arenas that some will argue are a bit remote from scientific research.

Not unexpectedly, the campaign, Californians for Stem Cell Research, Treatment and Cures,” was pleased with placement of the initiative on the fall ballot. The campaign issued a news release quoting Robert Klein, a Palo Alto real estate developer and chairman of the campaign, as saying, “During the past decade, California has made incredibly thoughtful investments and significant progress along our journey to developing therapies and cures, for diseases and conditions like diabetes, age-related blindness, cancer,  epilepsy, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease.”

He continued, “It is critical to California families that this vital therapy development pipeline continue to be funded. Our state has always been a leader in medical and scientific research and therapy development, ranking second in the world when evaluated as a nation. Continuing to fund that mission is essential to the health of our families while stimulating the economic recovery for California, with good paying jobs, created by this program.”

The news release also quoted Sandra Dillon, a clinical trial participant and cancer patient advocate. She said, “Since I was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer in 2006, there has been a tremendous amount of advancement in research and discovery that has allowed me to be here today, sharing my story, in large part due to the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine supporting the science that saved my life.

“Without California’s investment in advancing stem cell research and cures, I would not have the same energized, healthy life that I have been able to once again experience.”

The Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, which opposed the 2004 initiative that created CIRM, offered a different perspective.  In response to a query, Marcy Darnovsky, executive director  of the group, told Capitol Weekly that the initiative “does little to ease the serious concerns about CIRM that have been voiced for years by the Center for Genetics and Society, other public interest advocates, and researchers, and echoed by several policy bodies.

“It does nothing to address CIRM’s built-in conflicts of interest, or its lack of legislative oversight — despite it being an agency supported wholly by public funds. The new proposition makes some things worse; for example, it outsources critically important decisions about ethical standards to an unaccountable national committee.

“While stem cell research is valuable, there are no longer federal limits on its funding, which was the justification in 2004 for asking California voters to allocate the first multi-billion-dollar pot of money. In the meantime, that campaign’s shameless over-promising and hype set the stage for the hundreds of under-regulated commercial stem cell clinics now offering unapproved ‘treatments’ that have caused tumors and blindness.

She continued, “Today, California faces an enormous budget deficit and proposals to slash high-priority social programs that benefit all of us. It remains to be seen whether voters will approve a new multi-billion-dollar measure for CIRM, instead of investing in healthcare, housing, jobs, education, and other pressing needs.”

CIRM declined to comment on the announcement that the measure had qualified for the ballot. The agency’s governing board is scheduled to discuss  the initiative at a meeting Friday and approve a contingency plan if it fails to pass.

California is still only beginning to reckon with the economic impact of Covid crisis on services ranging from schools to health care for the poor.  Gov. Gavin Newsom has already announced a $54 billion shortfall in the budget. Lawmakers sent him a budget for the next 12 months that papers over the worst problems and assumes the federal government is likely to help out later this year, perhaps during the fall election season.

If federal funding fails to surface, the fate of the ballot measure could become entangled in voter concern over public priorities. Some voters are likely to ask: Should scientists at well-endowed Stanford University, which is the No. 1 recipient of CIRM funding ($388 million in all), receive more millions while poor people throughout the state are squeezed still further on health care?

Editor’s Note: David Jensen is a retired newsman who has followed the affairs of the $3 billion California stem cell agency since 2005 via his blog, the California Stem Cell Report. He has published more than 4,000 items on California stem cell matters. 

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