State stem cell agency’s at a crossroads

Published: Sunday, Apr. 27, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 27, 2014 - 7:38 am

In a few days, the $3 billion California stem cell agency is slated to pick a new president who will oversee what could be the last years of its life.

The governing board of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, is scheduled to make the decision Wednesday on the new CEO and his or her pay, which may top $500,000 annually and predictably stir public outrage.

It is a watershed moment for the nearly 10-year-old agency. Not only does it need a new president, it needs more cash, along with results that will resonate widely with the public and potential funding sources. Money for new research awards is scheduled to run out in 2017. To help build support and attract cash, CIRM has begun an aggressive push to commercialize stem cell research. The hope is to fulfill the promises of cures that were made during the ballot initiative campaign that created the program in 2004.

Overall, the agency, which has 56 employees, has handed out about $1.7 billion since it was created by California voters when they approved Proposition 71. The measure funded the agency directly from state borrowing (bonds), with no intervention by the governor or Legislature. No cures have yet resulted from CIRM’s spending.

The agency’s new chief will replace scientist Alan Trounson, who said last fall that he was resigning to rejoin his family in Australia. Trounson was hired in 2008 at an annual salary of $490,008, where it remains today.

Late last year, the agency pointedly specified that the new CEO did not have to be a scientist. Hiring someone from the private sector, however, could mean offering a salary higher than Trounson’s.

The new president and the agency face other issues, particularly developing what the agency calls a “sustainability” plan that would finance it beyond 2017. CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas is examining the possibility of a public-private partnership and is pitching the agency’s achievements to possible funding sources.

Asked last week to summarize CIRM’s accomplishments, Thomas said in an email, “In just a few short years – we didn’t start funding research in earnest until 2007 – we have helped make California the world leader in stem cell research and advanced the science much faster than anyone imagined would happen. Just 10 years after the passage of Proposition 71, 10 projects (that) we have funded are in or have been in clinical trials – including therapies for heart failure and HIV/AIDS – and we anticipate several more in cancer, diabetes, sickle cell disease and blindness going into clinical trials this year. It’s a record the people of California can be proud of.”

CIRM’s message, however, did not resonate at a meeting in January of the only state body charged with oversight of the enterprise – the Citizens Financial Accountability Oversight Committee, which is chaired by state Controller John Chiang.

One member of the committee, Jim Lott, a hospital industry executive in the Los Angeles area and backer of Proposition 71, was sharply critical of a presentation by Thomas and Ellen Feigal, CIRM’s senior vice president for research and development. According to the transcript of the meeting, Lott said, “What can you tell me that we’ve done that’s going to get my (13-year-old) daughter out of her wheelchair sooner (rather) than later after all this money has been spent?”

Not satisfied with Thomas and Feigal’s response, Lott told Thomas that the agency had a serious “marketing problem.” Lott said, “I’m telling you, pal, I would have a hard time voting for (Proposition 71) again.”

Read more articles by David Jensen



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