Ballot battle underway to keep stem cell agency alive

DNA is injected into a stem cell. (Photo: Spectral-Design, via Shuttertock)

The California stem cell agency has just finished pumping $5.3 million into the fight to save the lives of COVID-19 victims. And — in a ballot-box bonus — its efforts are already surfacing in the ballot campaign to rescue the agency from its own demise.

The agency is running out of money. It will begin closing its doors this fall without major financial support that it hopes will come from Proposition 14, a $5.5 billion bond measure on the November ballot.

The $5.3 million in the fast-track, Covid program is tiny by comparison. But the awards are likely to play a heftier role than might be anticipated based on their size. Stories about the Covid awards are have appeared on the campaign website in a move to tap into the deep public concern about the coronavirus.

“The coronavirus is creating an unprecedented threat to all of us…” — Jonathan Thomas

Three clinical trials have been funded, which involve actual patients as opposed to laboratory research. If the trials are successful, patients who have benefited are likely to surface in campaign video advertising aimed at refinancing the agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

The Covid research piggybacks on the federal “warp speed” drive to develop Covid treatments and is aimed at demonstrating that the agency is part of what CIRM officials describe as a worldwide, “all-hands-on-deck” effort.

CIRM sorely needs research results that will resonate with voters. The 2004 ballot campaign that created the $3 billion program raised expectations that stem cell therapies were right around the corner. But the agency has yet to produce a stem cell treatment that is widely available to the public.

The agency launched its Covid round on March 27 when CIRM board chairman Jonathan Thomas declared, “The coronavirus is creating an unprecedented threat to all of us, and, as one of the leading players in regenerative medicine, we are committed to doing all we can to develop the tools and promote the research that will help us respond to that threat.”

The trial awards range from $1 million to $701,000 each, a bargain price for joining a trial.

CIRM’s Covid research financing is a case where an urgent medical need marries nicely with ballot-box politics. The agency is forbidden by law to campaign for the ballot measure. But its charter also allows it to pursue a wide range of research possibilities.

Indeed, failure by CIRM to respond to the COVID-19 threat — it could be argued — would be a breach of CIRM’s public responsibilities.

Late last month, CIRM directors capped off the round by approving two awards and adding nearly $300,000 to the original authorization of $5 million. All of the awards have been made under an emergency process that requires awardees to be ready to begin research within 30 days and achieve “a clear deliverable within six months.”

The final awards went for basic level research. Earlier, CIRM approved funds to assist in the three clinical trials, which are the final stage before a treatment can be approved for widespread public use. The trial awards range from $1 million to $701,000 each, a bargain price for joining a trial. Most of CIRM’s previous clinical trial awards run into many millions.

CIRM now counts a total of 64 clinical trials that it is helping to finance. Two of the Covid trials are taking place at the University of California, San Francisco-UC Davis and the City of Hope in the Los Angeles area. The third involves a New Jersey firm called Celularity, Inc., which has failed to respond to multiple questions about the California location of its trial. The agency is limited to funding activities within the state. CIRM directors approved the Celularity award on June 26, more than 30 days ago.

The Celularity award has another interesting angle. It involves a treatment supported by President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudi Giuliani. 

You can find more information about all the awards in a series of items on CIRM’s blog, The Stem Cellar, using the search term “covid.”   Five CIRM/Covid stories, including CIRM blog items about the Covid round, have been placed on the campaign website by the campaign staff. 

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 in the past 11 years. 


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