Stem Cell Boondoggle Seeks New Boss

JUNE 20, 2011

By K. LLOYD BILLINGSLEY

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the state stem-cell agency, is looking for a new boss. The quest for a new leader, and possibly more public money, has shifted attention from CIRM’s lack of results.

CIRM was created by Proposition 71 in 2004 to fund embryonic stem cell research the Bush administration declined to support. The prime mover of Proposition 71 was Robert Klein II, a wealthy real-estate developer. The promotional campaign featured actors Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve and promised miraculous cures for a host of diseases.

CIRM’s own scientists now acknowledge that no CIRM-produced cures have trickled down to California patients.

Unfulfilled Expectations

“The focus on the California stem cell agency centers on whether it has or is fulfilling the promises of the 2004 campaign,” David Jensen, publisher of the California Stem Cell Report, told CalWatchDog.com. “Those expectations on the part of voters were a tad overblown, as often happens during political campaigns. Nonetheless, the voters’ expectations are certainly an important measure in assessing the stem cell agency. At this point, I suspect most voters would not say that their expectations have been fulfilled.”

In a recent article on CIRM governance, John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog’s Stem Cell Project failed to mention the agency’s dearth of results. But other CIRM critics stuck to the theme.

“It goes without saying that it [CIRM] hasn’t found those cures,” wrote Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, “though not for want of spending.” CIRM is spending $3 billion in bond funds, “$6 billion if you count the interest,” as Mr. Hiltzik noted.

California’s stem cell agency is practically off limits to oversight from the legislature. It has also become a landing spot for politicians such as former state senator Art Torres, who pulls down a salary of $225,000, which CIRM tripled from the original $75,000. Chairman Robert Klein II, who wrote Prop 71 to give himself that job, did not take a salary until 2008, when he began to draw an annual salary of $150,000.

Now Klein is out, and so is his first choice to replace himself, Canadian medical scientist Alan Bernstein. Controller John Chiang’s first choice to replace Klein was Art Torres. But Chiang now favors former cardiology professor Frank Litvack. Gov. Jerry Brown favors Jonathan Thomas, an investment banker schooled in biology. Thomas would want some $400,000 in salary, while Litvack would reportedly accept $150,000.

Mr. Litvack has also raised the prospect of weaning CIRM off government funds. That was not the view of Klein, who is on record that he would like another bond issue of as much as $5 billion.

New Bond Measure Would Fail

“If CIRM were to go to the ballot today with a $5 billion bond measure to continue its efforts, it would be nearly certain to fail given the state of the California economy and the budget crisis,” said Jensen. “A major change will be necessary to win approval a few years down the road.”

Change could include more transparency, stronger oversight, a wider research focus, and more integration with the rest of California’s medical-scientific establishment. CIRM’s new chairman, yet to be announced at this writing, will have to deal with all that, and the dearth of promised cures and therapies.

“I passionately believe,” Robert Klein told reporters last year, “that there will be some remarkable new therapies that will save lives and mitigate suffering substantially.”

Recent medical-scientific advances include the construction of a new windpipe for a Colombian woman, and the near total restoration of sight to a man whose eyes sustained chemical damage in 1948. CIRM played no role in these remarkable cases, the result of adult stem cell research.



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