Voters favor $5.5 billion more for state stem cell research

A scientist at work in a biological lab. (Photo: anyaivanova)

California voters have approved spending $5.5 billion more on stem cell research over the next 10 to 15 years and significantly broadening the scope of its state stem cell agency, according to state election figures.

[UPDATE, Nov. 13]  With more than 15.7 million votes counted, Proposition 14 was approved by about 51 percent to 49 percent of the ballots cast, or about 8.02 million to 7.7 million votes, a difference of about 324,000. The measure’s approval was called Thursday evening by The Associated Press.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, was created by voters in 2004 who also provided it with $3 billion in borrowed money. However, the cash began to run out last year, and staffers were leaving. The Oakland-based agency was planning to begin closing its doors this winter in the event that Proposition 14 was not approved.

Approval of Proposition 14 means the revival of an enterprise that is unique in California history and in the nation. No other state has mounted a stem cell program on the scale of CIRM. Voters 16 years ago endorsed it with 59 percent of the vote following a campaign that raised optimistic expectations that stem cell cures were right around the corner.

However, CIRM has not financed a stem cell therapy that is widely available to the general public. It is helping, however, to finance 64 clinical trials.

In addition to providing $5.5 billion in state bonds, Proposition 14 authorizes CIRM to expand its operations into such areas as mental health, therapy delivery and “aging as a pathology.” Its 29-member board will be expanded to 35, raising the likelihood of more conflicts of interests involving the board.

An analysis this summer by the California Stem Cell Report showed that 79 percent of the agency’s awards have gone to institutions with links to members of the CIRM board. The board members cannot vote on awards to their specific institutions. But they vote on and can change award “concept” programs that can benefit their institutions.

In 2012, a $700,000 evaluation of CIRM, commissioned by the agency itself, recommended a major restructuring of CIRM and was critical of the conflict of interest issues posed by its structure. Proposition 14 does little to address those recommendations from the prestigious Institute of Medicine.

The 2004 ballot initiative also deliberately structured CIRM to avoid oversight by the governor and legislature. Funds flow directly to CIRM without requiring legislative approval.

The immediate task now facing the agency is to adopt a new strategic plan for spending the $5.5 billion and hiring additional staff. The number of its employees dwindled to 33 this summer, down from a high of 56.

The CIRM board yesterday scheduled a public, online meeting for Nov. 12. Its agenda currently does not include approval of the new strategic plan that its CEO Maria Millan and CIRM staff have been devising.

Proposition 14 also could mean the removal of some board members whose terms are 50 percent expired. But that would depend on the pleasure of the appointing authorities.

Editor’s Note: UDATES with approval and AP call, 1st and 2nd grafs, and EDITS to conform. 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 thousands of items on California stem cell matters.

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