In 2004, California voters approved Prop 71 to fund the field of stem cell research by setting up the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, with $3 billion. George W. Bush was in the White House at the time, and since 2001, his administration had been limiting research that used embryonic stem cells.
A lot has changed since then. President Obama reversed the limit on embryonic stem cell research. And in 2006, we saw the first use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), or stem cells that were not derived from human embryos and therefore less ethically controversial. Today, stem cell research is a vast and ever growing field receiving funding from the NIH, philanthropy and private investors.
So, is there still a need for an organization like CIRM?
Here to answer this question is Neil Littman, CIRM’s new Director of Business Development. Neil argues that though stem cell research has become much more mainstream, there is still not a lot private investment and the field depends on government organizations like CIRM for funding.
“The biotech market has been very hot the past couple years," Neil says "But if you drill down into the details, there’s a real discrepancy between the funds that are flowing into therapies like gene therapy and CAR-T as opposed to funds that are flowing into stem cell based therapies.. . . The stem cells are really lagging. So we think there is the need for the continuation of CIRM and for the types of work that we fund because we’re not really seeing a huge uptake from the private sector or other organizations to do this type of work. Some of our programs have seen partnerships--which is great--but it’s only a very small percentage of the overall programs we are funding. We need to be here to act as an accelerating vehicle.”
Why, in this bull biotech market, hasn’t stem cell therapy attracted more private investment? Neil says it’s because the current programs “are not mature enough.”
Neil gives an update on the most promising of the stem cell trials, lists CIRM’s biggest successes, and addresses the toughest challenges, including how best to invest the remaining $1 billion.