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California’s stem cell campaign faces challenges with Obamacare in jeopardy

California’s stem cell agency begins 2017 with two issues on the mind of its vice chairman, Art Torres:

What happens to healthcare reimbursements if Obamacare is repealed?

Will supporters organize to urge California voters to grant the agency more money to continue its mission?

That mission is to hasten bringing stem cell and related therapies to patients, in a way that strengthens California’s economy. It began in 2004, when 59% of California voters approved Proposition 71, establishing the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

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CIRM was awarded $3 billion in state bond revenue to start up and run the program. The initial focus was on developing therapies with embryonic stem cells. But it now supports a wide range of approaches to regenerating and repairing damaged tissue, including embryonic and nonembryonic stem cells, gene therapy and other technologies.

While CIRM still has close to $700 million left, the money is projected to run out by 2020. So either more money from voters, philanthropists, deals with medical companies or some combination will be needed, or the agency may cease to exist.

CIRM itself can’t get involved in these funding efforts, Torres said in an interview at the agency’s Oakland headquarters. But supporters of the agency have made it known they’re considering whether to put a measure on the ballot in 2018.

“Right now, we don’t know whether it’s going to be $3 billion, $4 billion or $5 billion as a request,” Torres said. “I think the No. 1 priority for CIRM is to show some results from the last funding, and I think that’s starting to happen.”

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Practically speaking, he said, the supporters will need to make a decision by the end of 2017 to get a measure on the 2018 ballot.

The agency can point to milestones reached, in education of new stem cell scientists, helping regenerative medicine research centers get off the ground and in clinical trials of therapies it funded.

Nearly 30 clinical trials have been funded by CIRM, for things such as HIV, blindness, cancers and heart disease.

Moreover, CIRM points to results in two patients, who the agency says were cured of their diseases in agency-funded clinical trials. And other clinical trials have resulted from CIRM-funded researchers.

But the agency has also had to face criticism that supporters over-promised results in the Proposition 71 campaign. The agency has responded under President Randy Mills to emphasize performance and measurable results in advancing treatments. He calls the revamped agency CIRM 2.0.

The agency has also started a new outreach program to the public to ask for its support.

The incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump adds more uncertainty to the picture, said Torres, who also sits on the five-member board that oversees Obamacare in California.

“It’s so important because that [Obamacare] will be the nexus for how you implement payment for treatments, especially new treatments that will come from our stem cell research,” he said.

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Torres said he doesn’t have any contacts with the nascent Trump administration, and doesn’t know whether anyone else at CIRM does. However, he said it is probably beginning to hear from doctors, insurance companies and others who will lose the ability to fund access to these treatments without Obamacare.

bradley.fikes@sduniontribune.com

Fikes writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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