Stem cells 2: Was California sold a stem cell pup?

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine was created in 2004 after voters overwhelmingly supported a US$3 bond issue to pay for stem cell cures. President George W. Bush had just restricted federal funding for human embryonic stem cells and the state set itself up to be the biggest and best stem cell institute in the world. The total cost to taxpayers would eventually be $6 billion, including interest. Was it worth it?

According to an article in the online journal STAT, the answer is probably No.

Back in 2004, the CIRM was “shamelessly oversold” to voters.

Desperate patients, Nobel laureates, and A-list celebrities such as Michael J. Fox — the Hollywood star and Parkinson’s sufferer — predicted “cures” that would “save millions of lives.”

“There are more Americans than … we can count who are sick now, or are going to be sick in the future, whose lives will be saved by Prop 71,” patient advocate Joan Samuelson said in another ad. The sponsors of the measure also predicted that CIRM-generated cures would drastically reduce health care spending. No one made specific promises for the 10-year timeframe initially planned for CIRM’s work, but miracles seemed just around the corner.

Instead, the CIRM can only boast of two completed clinical trials since it began. Most of the $2.2 billion it has distributed so far has been spend on buildings and basic research, not on cures. The new CEO of the CIRM, C. Randal Mills, now calls initial hopes “naïve”.

“You can support embryonic stem cell research, which we do and did, and still be pretty appalled by what was going down,” says Marcy Darnovsky, head of the Berkeley-based Center for Genetics and Society. “The airwaves were swamped with guys in white coats who were identified with their academic affiliation even though they were principals of private companies (some of which later got CIRM grants), and basically saying, ‘We’re going to have cures by Christmas.’”

Under its current funding plan, the CIRM’s money will run out by 2020. With its remaining $692 million, Mills hopes to fund another 50 clinical trials, 10 of which were announced last year. Only 17 trials were funded in the organisation’s first year. 

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | california, cirm, stem cells

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