Thursday, April 12, 2012

Caveat emptor

A recent AP report looks at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) halfway through its ten year term and asks “is it still relevant?”

The report bluntly notes:

“The taxpayer-funded institute wielded the extraordinary power to dole out $3 billion in bond proceeds to fund embryonic stem cell work with an eye toward treatments for a host of crippling diseases. Midway through its mission, with several high-tech labs constructed, but little to show on the medicine front beyond basic research, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine faces an uncertain future…will it still exist when the money dries up?

This is in marked contrast to the very rosy predictions that were made in order to sell the institute to California voters in 2004.  Back then, in order to convince voters to approve the establishment of CIRM in Proposition 71 --  at a cost of $3 billion over 10 years, plus interest --  proponents of the measure assured them that not only would human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR) produce all kinds of cures, but those cures would dramatically reduce the state’s healthcare costs and generate substantial royalties for the state.  A report by Stanford University confidently predicted that the research (primarily hESCR) supported by the institute would generate in royalties anywhere between $537 million to $1.1 billion.  Overall, the report predicted a 120 to 236 percent return on the initial investment.

That hasn’t happened and in all likelihood never will. Instead, the money is drying up and CIRM is looking for ways to raise more.

The AP report goes on to ask, “So what have Californians received for their money so far?”  The answer: “The most visible investment is the opening of sleek buildings and gleaming labs at a dozen private and public universities built with matching funds. Two years ago, Stanford University unveiled the nation's largest space dedicated to stem cell research: 200,000 square feet that can hold 550 researchers.”

And what about all the confidently predicted cures?  “There are no cures yet in the pipeline and CIRM has shifted focus, channeling money to projects with the most promise of yielding near-term results.”

Do No Harm has noted before at this blog spot that over the years, CIRM has increasingly moved away from its initial commitment to favor hESCR in awarding grants and toward adult stem cell research – precisely because such research is proving to have “the most promise of yielding near-term results.”

John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog told AP that CIRM is a victim of its early supporters' hype.  “‘The impression you got was, if you just passed this bond measure, Christopher Reeve will be jumping out of his wheelchair and walking next week,’” said Simpson, referring to the late paralyzed actor who appeared in TV ads backing Prop 71. "They're having to live down the super high expectations that they raised."
That hype, however, was necessary to sell such ethically contentious research to the public precisely because it was ethically contentious – hESCR necessarily requires the destruction of human life to proceed.  Caveat emptor.

There is an old adage we all heard from our parents and which we still tell our children today: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

Regarding hESCR, California’s taxpayers are learning that lesson all over again.

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