California Stem Cell Agency Helps Executives, Not Patients

By David Prentice

Robert Klein, outgoing chairman of CIRM

Jack Dolan of the Los Angeles Times takes California’s stem cell agency (California Institute of Regenerative Medicine– CIRM) to task for the exorbitant salaries paid to its executives, while other California agencies cut back and the state wrestles with covering an enormous budget deficit.

Investment banker Jonathan Thomas was elected the new chairman on June 22, beating out cardiologist and entrepreneur Frank Litvack for the position. Thomas will take a salary of $400,000 to serve as part-time board chairman, joining CIRM’s president Alan Trounson ($490,008 salary last year) as two of the most highly-paid state employees.

As the California Stem Cell Report pointed out at the time, political and financial pressure had a great deal to do with Thomas winning the chairmanship, not so much science.

Thomas and others at CIRM have indicated that they are simply misunderstood, and need better public relations. They are advertising for a new public relations director (salary up to $208,520 per year) to help correct their problem.

In 2004, California voters passed Proposition 71, which allocated $3 billion in state taxpayer funds over 10 years, targeted for embryonic stem cell and human cloning research. Adult stem cell research could only be funded by a supermajority vote of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine  funding committee, which is staffed primary by member of California institutions doing embryonic stem cell research.

Proposition 71 was written by Robert Klein, who has been chairman until now, and who has continuously pushed embryonic stem cell research over adult stem cells. Klein claims that embryonic stem cells and cloning would result in cures and economic prosperity for Californians. To date not a single person has ever benefitted physically from embryonic stem cells.

Despite a decided lack of results from supporting embryonic stem cell and cloning research, Thomas and others at CIRM have indicated they will ask the taxpayers of California to pony up more funds for the research after their original $3 billion allotment runs out. Notably, many of their recent stem cell grants aimed at producing results have NOT gone to embryonic stem cells, but to adult stem cells, which are the proven winners for patients.

(Over 2,100 adult stem cell clinical trials are ongoing  or completed. Adult stem cells are used to treat over 50,000 patients around the globe each year, and have shown published success for patients with dozens of different diseases and injuries, including for spinal cord injury, for corneal blindness, for juvenile diabetes, for heart damage, and for multiple sclerosis, just to name a few.)

That has not stopped the National Institutes of Health embryonic stem cell registry–the list of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) lines approved to receive federal taxpayer funding–from growing at an ever-increasingly pace. The registry now lists a total of 128 hESC lines. Previously NIH Director Francis Collins had been approving lines slowly, but on a regular basis.

Following an initial burst of approvals starting in December 2009 and January 2010 that led to 42 hESC lines approved for federal taxpayer funding. In March 2010 there were 44 hESC lines that had been approved, and in June 2010 there were 75 approved lines.

There were only 93 approved hESC lines on June 3, 2011. But June has been a banner month to approve hESC lines for the federal funding trough. NIH has added a number of new hESC lines, including lines that have various genetic problems.

The current NIH guidelines provide an incentive to destroy more human embryos to make more hESC lines, as was pointed out in filings in the Sherley v. Sebelius federal lawsuit. The lawsuit maintains that federal taxpayer funding of any human embryonic stem cell research is illegal under current law

Interestingly, a recent Nature Medicine blog makes some of the same exact points as Drs. Sherley and Deisher, that there is continuing pressure for more hESC lines. This pressure creates an incentive to destroy more embryos, an incentive not only to fill “demand” for an insatiable desire for more cells, but also an incentive to reap an economic profit from that embryo destruction.

Dr. David Prentice  is Senior Fellow for Life Sciences at the Family Research Council.

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