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State stem cell agency follows the money — $5.5 billion

A pipette and receptacles used in stem cell research. (Photo: CI Photos)

The talk at the California stem cell agency this week was of ”boiling the ocean,” the meaning of “unlikely” and “DEI.” All of which involves how $5.5 billion in taxpayer dollars will be used over the next decade or so.

The occasion was a meeting of the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the stem cell agency is officially known. It is trying to figure out how to spend the fresh funding that voters gave it last fall.

Several members of the board warned about trying to “boil the ocean” — trying to do too much.

The cash, which is all money borrowed by the state, came via Proposition 14, a “Christmas tree” measure that also blessed or cursed CIRM with a vast array of new ways to spend money.

Now it is up to the agency to figure out the best financial path that will actually generate a stem cell therapy that is actually available to the general public. CIRM has been working on that goal for 16 years already but has yet to achieve it.

Several members of the board warned about trying to “boil the ocean” — trying to do too much. The $5.5 billion is a lot of money but is not close to covering all the possibilities available under Proposition 14.

At a Tuesday meeting, CIRM directors reviewed many of the choices laid out in a session with stem cell advisors last month, which included a “Hotel California” concept that would create some sort of center — not necessarily physical — in the Golden State where stem cell standardization and vetting could be applied.

Then there was DEI, an unfortunate anacronym that seems much too close to another, DUI.

DEI simply means treating all people fairly, whether they are patients, researchers or ordinary citizens and making a special effort to bring in persons of color who have not always been welcomed or treated equally.

While Proposition 14 provided the cash, its 17,000 words carried forward many of the dubious aspects of the ballot initiative of 2004, Proposition 71.

As Ysabel Duron, a patient advocate member of the board, pointed out, it should extend to greater inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities among the persons who make the de facto decisions on research applications for CIRM’s billions. Duron was also a leader last year in an effort to assure that equity requirements are specified in each award round and measured and scored by CIRM.

DEI, by the way, stands for diversity, equity and inclusion. And it was clear Tuesday that it will be a big part of how CIRM spends its billions.

While Proposition 14 provided the cash, its 17,000 words carried forward many of the dubious aspects of the ballot initiative of 2004, Proposition 71, that created the research effort.

For the past 16 years, CIRM has struggled to define the word in a meaningful way so that it could be legally and effectively used as a scoring criteria on research applications.

CIRM’s choices will affect the professional lives of thousands of California researchers not to mention millions of persons suffering from serious disease.

The discussion Tuesday raised the specter of CIRM financing research just because it had failed to qualify for support elsewhere. No firm conclusions were reached on how to deal with the “unlikely” dilemma.

Thanks to the way Proposition 14/71 was written, changes in the law affecting CIRM require another vote of the people or a super, super-majority vote of both houses of the Legislature and the signature of the governor, both of which as “unlikely.”

The “unlikely” problem consumed 44 minutes of board time yesterday. From all accounts, it has consumed hundreds of hours within the agency over the past 16 years. Its unnecessary retention in the ballot measure last fall is likely to mean many more hours of wasted time for CIRM if it can’t be properly resolved.

The CIRM board is scheduled to approve its new, five-year strategic plan next December. Between then and now, more public hearings are expected. CIRM’s strategic decisions will affect how much is spent on the earliest stages of research or the clinical trials that could lead to actual approval of a therapy. CIRM’s choices will affect the professional lives of thousands of California researchers not to mention millions of persons suffering from serious disease.

CIRM’s course will also determine whether it can build a case in 10 years for more funding from the people of California. Otherwise, the effort will whither away.

Persons interested in the strategic direction of the agency can communicate directly with the board by emailing kmcormack@cirm.ca.gov.

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, where this story first appeared. 


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