The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has chosen financier Jonathan Thomas as its new boss — but it matters little who runs the state stem-cell agency. The focus should be on results, and by that standard, Californians do not get what they paid for.
Thomas, an investment banker schooled in biology, was the favored candidate of Gov. Jerry Brown. He will be paid $395,000, according to news reports, second to the more than $490,000 that CIRM pays President Alan Trounson. Former cardiology professor Frank Litvack, the rejected candidate, would reportedly have accepted a figure in the neighborhood of $150,000 and tried to direct CIRM away from government funds.
Created by Proposition 71 in 2004, CIRM is spending $3 billion in bond money on the 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.
“Voters’ expectations are certainly an important measure in assessing the stem-cell agency,” says David Jensen of the California Stem Cell Report. “At this point, I suspect most voters would not say that their expectations have been fulfilled.”
CIRM’s own scientists acknowledge that no CIRM-produced cures have trickled down to California patients. But Klein has remained hopeful.
“I passionately believe,” he told reporters last year, “that there will be some remarkable new therapies that will save lives and mitigate suffering substantially.”
Such therapies already exist, but CIRM played no role in recent medical-scientific advances such as 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. These were triumphs of adult stem-cell research.
CIRM has been criticized for its narrow research focus and for being too secretive. Indeed, Robert Klein not only wrote the initiative to install himself as chairman, but he also crafted an isolation ward, effectively off limits to legislative oversight and heavy on the management side. And the selection of Jonathan Thomas is not the first time CIRM has opted for a higher-priced alternative.
In 2009, CIRM board member Duane Roth, experienced in biotechnology, offered to serve as vice chair for no salary. Instead of accepting that offer, CIRM made Roth co-vice-chair along with former state Sen. Art Torres, then duly tripled Torres’ initial salary of $75,000 to $225,000.
Chairman Klein did not take a salary until 2008, when he grabbed himself $150,000. Before his departure, Klein was on record that he would like more bond money. David Jensen thinks a $5 billion bond measure for CIRM would likely fail and that a “major change” would be necessary to win approval.
Such change could include more transparency, stronger oversight, a wider research focus and more integration with the rest of California’s medical-scientific establishment. But without any of the promised cures and therapies, a ballpark figure for what CIRM should get is zero, whether Robert Klein or Jonathan Thomas happens to run the place.
The federal government now authorizes embryonic stem-cell research, invalidating CIRM’s reason for existence. CIRM functions best as the California Institute for the Redistribution of Money. That was not what Californians voted for in 2004.