Time to Sunset California’s “Relic” Stem Cell Institute

SACRAMENTO – The governance of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the state stem cell institute, is inadequate to protect the interests of taxpayers and CIRM’s own goals, according to Stem Cell Research: Strengthening Governance to Further the Voters’ Mandate, a June 25 report from the Little Hoover Commission, a state watchdog agency.

The report advances various reforms and raises questions about how long CIRM should endure. The Institute itself has recently invalidated its primary reason for existence, the funding of human embryonic stem cell research.

CIRM is the offspring of Proposition 71, authored in 2004 by real estate magnate Robert Klein, who sold it as a factory of miraculous cures. The measure authorized $3 billion in spending but the Little Hoover Commission report pegs the total cost at more than $6 billion once the bonds are repaid. The report also notes that Prop 71 “locked out” legislators from reforming CIRM for its first three years, and after that required 70 percent approval in the Assembly and Senate, as well as the governor’s signature. The results are evident.

“In the midst of a state budget crisis, the stem cell institute is an island, spending freely, accountable to no one,” editorialized the Sacramento Bee on June 20. What Californians get for the spending is another matter.

The Commission report mentions new and expanded facilities, an influx of scientists, published articles, and growth in California’s life-sciences industry. But Stem Cell Research cites no actual cures or treatments from CIRM, because there are none.

“Globally, stem cell science is advancing far more quickly than anticipated,” the report says, “particularly in the area of adult stem cell research development that is not given preference in Proposition 71.”

Indeed, CIRM strictly limits itself to human embryonic stem cell research. SB 1565, a measure by state senators Sheila Kuehl, a Democrat and George Runner, a Republican, would have allowed more diversity, but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill.

CIRM gave a $6.6 million grant to the Salk Institute, which in June announced that they are one step away from using stem cells to cure Fanconi anemia, a rare genetic disease.

Curing a cell, as one scientist put it, was another victory for adult stem cell research, not the embryonic kind CIRM exists to fund.

The Salk Institute team created stem cells from hair and skin cells they took from actual patients. The only use of embryonic stem cells was as a control, to show that the cells created in this study from adult cells behave identically to healthy embryonic stem cells. (See Raya et al. “Disease-corrected haematopoietic progenitors from Fanconi anaemia induced pluripotent stem cells,” Nature 31 05 2009)

Federal funding is available for adult stem cell research, and the Obama administration has lifted restrictions on the embryonic side, which further raises questions about the need for CIRM. The Little Hoover Commission Report notes that “Only five years later, Proposition 71 already looks like a relic of another era.”

Jesse Reynolds of the Center for Genetics and Society told the Commission that the justification for California’s stem cell program has largely dissolved and it is time to re-evaluate its mission. John Simpson, who monitors stem cell issues for Consumer Watchdog, suggested that with anticipated National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for stem cell research, California should reconsider spending the entire $3 billion that voters authorized.

CIRM would like to be a permanent state-level NIH, but that may not be possible. California is out of money, faces a budget deficit of $24.3 billion, and its credit rating could hardly be worse. The Stem Cell Research report warns that CIRM’s transparency and accountability concerns “are hardly fading,” and “the structure may not be sustainable in the long term.” It remains “unclear, however, what is to become of CIRM when the $3 billion is spent.” The Commission’s conversations with members of the Institute’s oversight committee “revealed no clear consensus on the best approach for CIRM’s future.”

CIRM does provide guidelines for agencies that could use a sunset. This means unaccountable bodies that resist scrutiny, shun reform, promise more than they can deliver, and invalidate their own reason for existence.

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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