California Institute of Regenerative Medicine not reforming itself enough, or fast enough, panel says

By Dave Andrusko

CIRMlogo23When last we visited the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine,  the CIRM was under tremendous pressure to become more “accountable” and more “transparent,” especially when it came to what pro-life bioethicist Wesley Smith has called “institutional back scratching.”

In case you’ve missed our many stories about CIRM, it was established after voters in 2004 approved a state ballot initiative, Proposition 71, which funded embryonic stem cell/human cloning research using $3 billion in bonds. The CIRM has come in for a steady drumbeat of criticism, initially largely from bloggers, but of late from an independent experts convened by the National Institute of Medicine. And, oh by the way, the “promise” of breakthroughs using embryonic stem cells have completely failed to come to fruition.

Last December the experts produced a withering report. The Los Angeles Times’ Eryn Brown reported that “The committee found that ‘far too many’ of the board members are from organizations that stand to benefit from the $3 billion the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is supposed to dole out to researchers over 10 years. Making matters worse, the panel said, the 29 board members are too closely involved in the agency’s day-to-day decisions.” Or, as Harold Shapiro, former president of Princeton University and chair of the 13-person committee that issued the report said, “They make proposals to themselves, essentially, regarding what should be funded.”

Which brings us to today’s progress report, as it were, as detailed by Cynthia H. Craft of the Sacramento Bee newspaper. The “sweeping recommendations” the committee recommended in December “emphasiz[ed] the need for new blood on a governing board that has been plagued by the appearance of conflicts of interest, cronyism and sluggishness in getting stem-cell products to market,” she wrote. And that has not been happening, according to Shapiro, who described CIRM’s “reform” plan as not going far enough, fast enough.

“There certainly is a gap between what we recommended and what they responded with,” Shapiro told  Craft. “I wish they had moved closer to our recommendations.”

And the stem cell agency is up against the clock.  It risks running out of funds soon (only  $859 million of the original 3 billion remains) and

“by 2017, it must have in place a self-sustaining financial formula to replace its bond allocations.”

The charges of cronyism/conflict of interest are now rampant. “Perhaps one of the most egregious examples of the appearance of alleged cronyism occurred last summer, according to media reports,” Craft wrote. “The board granted millions of dollars to a for-profit firm – after its proposal was twice rejected by CIRM’s own scientific reviewers. Representing the for-profit firm that got the money was [real estate mogul Bob] Klein, the board’s first chairman and leader of the campaign for Proposition 71 at the ballot box.”

Approval of Proposition  71 came based the assertion that there were some federal restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research and with enough taxpayer money there would be (to quote Wesley Smith) “the promise of developing embryonic stem cell and therapeutic cloning cures.” However, as Smith has written

“when that didn’t work out–-and desperate to show some progress for all the money CIRM has sucked up on Californians’ credit card–it changed its tune and began funding research into adult stem cells–you know, the very ones that we had been told really didn’t hold all that much promise? Sure, you remember. Well, the first drug developed in part with direct CIRM grants has just received FDA approval for a clinical trial, and waddya know, they were derived from cardiac adult stem cells.  What a hoot.”

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