State Stem Cell Institute Short on Responsibility – and Results

Last month, California’s Little Hoover Commission, a public watchdog agency, completed its first hearing on the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The proceedings flagged problems of governance and responsibility with the state’s stem-cell institute. At the same time, a medical breakthrough in Europe points out the shortfall in CIRM results, though not in revenue.

The CIRM, established in 2004 by Proposition 71, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, gets financing from $3 billion in bonds. The way that money is disbursed disturbs some longtime observers of the CIRM, such as Kenneth Taymor executive director of the UC Berkeley Center for Law, Business and the Economy. Mr. Taymor was in attendance at the Little Hoover Commission’s November 20 hearing and described the CIRM board as “a club that was allocating money among themselves.”

That comment was cited in a November 24 Sacramento Bee editorial which contended that “the hearing revealed, once again, that this institute’s 29-member governing board is rife with potential conflicts; that it is overly large and unwieldy; and that it awards multimillion-dollar grants in a manner that favors secrecy over accountability.”

The governing board, the editorial continued, can’t fire the CIRM chairman or control his staff, because Robert Klein II, the author of Proposition 71 wrote the measure that way, and he is also the chairman. “That’s too bad,” the editorial concluded. “Without real reforms, Klein and his board will continue to operate like a club, spending taxpayer dollars without the normal safeguards of other public agencies.”

Another issue for CIRM is how Californians, who authorized the institute, would share in the revenues from any cures the institute happened to discover. That issue has lacked definition because the CIRM has yet to come up with any cures, with good reason. The CIRM is locked into embryonic stem cell research, but key progress on the cures front is taking place with adult stem cells. Consider the recent case of Claudia Castillo, the first recipient of a human windpipe grown from stem cells.

A team of surgeons and researchers from Spain, Italy and Britain performed the procedure, which involved a trachea segment from a donor. The surgeons managed to remove the donor’s original cells and used a “bioreactor” to grow stem cells from Claudia Castillo’s own bone marrow. They then “seeded” these cells into the windpipe, which the recipient’s body accepted. Castillo, a tuberculosis patient, was spared the removal of a lung and now lives a normal life caring for her two children.

“This is the first time a tissue-engineered whole organ has been transplanted into a patient,” Martin Birchall, a British member of the team from the University of Bristol, told reporters. “I reckon in 20 years’ time it will be the commonest operation – it will transform the way we think about surgery.”

The CIRM, unfortunately, is forbidden from participating in the kind of research that made this breakthrough possible. Recent legislation would have allowed more diversity, and passed both houses of the legislature, but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the measure.

If they want to see medical advances like the case of Claudia Castillo, legislators should advance another measure that would allow the CIRM to participate in adult stem cell research. This time the governor should sign it.

The CIRM, meanwhile, has another $2 billion to spend. Should Californians want to weigh in on the issues of governance and responsibility, they will have an opportunity on January 22, 2009, when the Little Hoover Commission holds a public hearing on the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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