The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) turns five in 2009, a good occasion for a report card, beginning with the “medicine” part. Here we have a problem.
“The California program has yet to produce cures,” explains John M. Simpson, stem cell director of Consumer Watchdog, in a recent Sacramento Bee article. “I believe it ultimately will.” So far, the cures are indeed a matter of belief, and likely to become more so because of the way medical research is unfolding.
Voters enacted the $6-billion state program in 2004 after “a campaign of exceptional intellectual dishonesty,” as Robert Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times put it. Real estate tycoon Robert Klein and other supporters promised cures and therapies for diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimers and other diseases, all through embryonic stem cell research funded by California taxpayers. No cures are in evidence, and the CIRM played no role in the biggest medical-scientific discovery of 2008.
In March, the journal Cell documented how scientists have created personalized stem cells without the risk of cancer that has stymied researchers in the past. Scientists took skin samples from five patients with Parkinson’s disease and transformed them into stem cells known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). The scientists then removed the genes that could make the cells cancerous, making them safe for transplant.
This is only one achievement of adult stem cell research. Last year a Colombian woman received a new windpipe grown from her body’s own cells. The CIRM, unfortunately, is limited to embryonic stem cell research, and Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed a bipartisan measure that would have allowed more diversity. To the dearth of actual results add problems with CIRM oversight and fiscal responsibility.
“The program threatens to suck up precious fiscal resources of a state with none to spare and is rife with conflicts of interest,” writes Mr. Hiltzik. Without a new infusion of funds, the institute says it may run out of money in September. It recently added a needless expense, which highlights the CIRM’s new role as a dumping ground for out-of-work politicians.
The CIRM was looking for a new co-chair for its Independent Citizens Oversight Committee. The governor’s choice was Duane Roth, already on the committee, a veteran of the biotech field, and who wanted to serve without a salary. The CIRM decided to go another way.
On March 12, the institute named Art Torres, a former state legislator and outgoing boss of the California Democratic Party, as co-chair of the oversight committee. Mr. Torres once chaired the Assembly Health Committee but is not a scientist and has no direct stem-cell experience. Unlike Mr. Roth, his co-chair, Art Torres wanted a salary and will be paid $75,000.
The Sacramento Bee editorialized that Roth “would have been a better solitary choice for the job” and lamented that dividing the post would give “more power than ever,” to CIRM chairman Robert Klein. He used to serve without a salary, but now takes one of $150,000, for working half time.
Nearly five years after its creation, the CIRM functions best as an agency to redistribute money. This was not what Californians voted for in 2004. Californians could use new medicines, and the state could use more money. With all its problems, however, the CIRM is not the only example of politics trumping reform.
California’s Integrated Waste Management Board, for example, is another dumping ground for politicians. Governor Schwarzenegger, who recently appointed San Francisco Democrat Carole Migden to one of the $132,178-a-year sinecures, backed two bills that would have eliminated the board. Last month legislators killed both bills in committee.