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Stem cell agency eyes survival options

An illustration of stem cells used in research. (Photo: Billion Photos, via Shutterstock)

California’s $3 billion stem cell research agency, which is facing its financial demise in a few short years, has formed a team of its directors to tackle transition planning and examine possible alternatives, including ones that would extend its life.

The first meeting of the group of directors is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 18. Jonathan Thomas, chairman of the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), as the agency is formally known, said earlier this summer:

“The legislature has asked that we put together and start thinking about a transition plan, which can contemplate a variety of factors.”In response to a question last week, a spokesman for the agency, Kevin McCormack, said that a notice with more details would be posted 10 days prior to the meeting.

At a meeting in June, Thomas laid out the need for the transition team. He said all options are on the table including asking the legislature for cash or to place a measure on the ballot for more bond funding.

The agency’s only real source of money is state bonds, authorized by voters in 2004. It has roughly $600 million left. The agency has projected it will run out of cash for new awards in mid 2020, although that could vary, depending on whether it slows down the pace of awards.

Several directors at the board meeting in June expressed a “sense of urgency” about dealing with the fate of the agency. CIRM Director Jeff Sheehy, a member of the San Francisco board of supervisors and an HIV/AIDS patient advocate, voiced concern about the uncertain nature of the agency’s future.

Sheehy said, “It seems to me that we will be talking about a substantial scaling back of the organization in 2020….We’ve kind of created this expectation that we were going to go to 2018 and come back with new money.”

Sheehy referred to talk that a new bond initiative might be launched in 2018, a move that the board’s former chairman, Robert Klein, has publicly advanced. Sheehy said, however, that he spoke with Klein, who told him that he was now considering 2020 instead.  Klein’s method would require the gathering of hundreds of thousands of valid voter signatures to place the proposal on the ballot and would bypass the legislature.

The year 2020 includes a presidential election, which has higher voter turnout and generally is considered a better time to win approval of bond measures. Presumably, the agency might be able to secure extra funding to span any financial gap or, alternatively, lower the frequency of awards to stretch out the cash.

The members of the transition group are Thomas, Sheehy, Art Torres, Steve Juelsgaard, Joe Panetta, Kristiina Vuori, Linda Malkas, Diane Winokur, Shlomo Melmed, Al Rowlettand Judy Gasson. Short bios on each of them can be found via this page.

The California Stem Cell Report will carry an item with the date and location of the September meeting when it becomes available.

Ed’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.  He has published more than 4,000 items on California stem cell matters in the past 11 years. 


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