Maria Millan Opens Up About the Current State of CIRM

In an article published to the SF Chronicle last week, reporter Erin Allday and Joaquin Palomino discussed CIRM, and how our work as an agency has paid off since our inception in 2004.

The article, which is a part of a four part series, explores the hope and reality of the revolutionary science of stem cell therapy. It focuses on what has transpired since 2004, when California voters approved a $3 billion bond measure to fund stem cell research with the promise that it soon would produce new treatments for incurable diseases.

In four parts, it follows the stories of patients desperately seeking remedies; probes the for-profit clinics where unproven and unregulated treatments are being offered; takes you into the labs and hospital rooms where scientists are testing new therapies; and provides a comprehensive accounting of what California’s multi billion dollar bet on stem cells has achieved.

Our CEO Maria Millan shared her thoughts in response to some of the questions raised by this article.

Q: There have been many critics who say it’s taking too long for CIRM to deliver cures, and they expected more. What is your response to these people?

A: Many of us can relate that relief cannot come quickly enough for our relatives and friends who suffer from debilitating and devastating medical conditions— I believe that is why many of us are at CIRM, an organization whose mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Through the years, we have enabled the creation of an incredible ecosystem of top scientists and researchers and partnered with patients and patient advocates to pursue this mission.  We continually strive to improve and to become more efficient  and we share the sense of urgency to harness the potential of stem cell biology to deliver relief to those in need.

Q: Given all of the differences between CIRM and the NIH, why do you think the reporter compared CIRM to the NIH?

A: The NIH is the largest health research funder world-wide, has been around a lot longer, has a much larger budget >$30B this past year alone and the NHLBI alone has a $3B annual budget—NHLBI is just one of the 27 NIH Institutes. The reason that CIRM was formed is that the advocates of Proposition 71 wanted to make sure that scientists and developers can pursue vital research opportunities that may not have access to funding by traditional funders, including the NIH. CIRM has a total budget of $3B available to fund research and support operations and we have been managing that budget since the passage of Proposition 71 in 2004.  If we consider  the number of stem cell trials for given available budget, CIRM has funded a disproportionately higher number of translational and clinical programs in stem cell and regenerative medicine. In fact, the NHLBI has entered into a collaboration with CIRM on their Cure Sickle Cell initiative because of CIRM’s specialization in funding and enabling cell-gene regenerative medicine research.  I take this as a validation of CIRM’s value proposition in this new area– acceleration, translation, and clinical trials.

Q: Given the visibility being given to stem cell tourism and direct to consumer marketing of unproven and unregulated therapies, what value does CIRM bring to patients?

A: CIRM is positioned as the trusted agency for delivering on high quality trials, for being on the side of patients for safe trials and treatments and is a credible partner for patient, industry, government stakeholders to tackle this issue of stem cell tourism. We only fund clinical trials backed by solid scientific data with FDA permission to test it in patients. We have funded research being conducted at top tier medical centers and created the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network to provide people with high quality clinical trials. We are remaining in close contact with our legislators, including Speaker Pro Tem Kevin Mullin, Chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Biotechnology, to evaluate potential ways to protect patients from illegitimate clinics while progress is being made with legitimate approaches.

Q: Do you feel that enough money is being put towards basic research?

A: If we had the budget to do so, we would like to be able to fund more discovery research as well as translational and clinical research.  However, approximately $880M CIRM funds have gone into basic research thus far.  CIRM has a specialized and very unique role that supports and fosters rigorous stem cell and regenerative medicine science but, CIRM has distinguished itself as an agency that specializes in accelerating the translation of this science to therapies for patients.

Dr. Millan also appeared with SF Chronicle reporter Erin Allday and UC Davis stem cell scientist Paul Knoepfler on a Facebook Live talk about the work of the stem cell agency.

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