Friday, April 06, 2018

Media Coverage of Stem Cell Therapy for Blindness Loses Sight of California's $36 Million in Support


Dennis Clegg of UC Santa Barbara, one of the leaders in developing a new stem cell treatment for AMD, speaks broadly about the approach in this 2016 video.

The news this week was good for the $3 billion California stem cell agency, which is facing its possible demise in less than two years.

The stories demonstrated what the CEO of the agency, Maria Millan, calls the "value proposition" of the agency's work for the people of California. But only if the agency is mentioned in the news coverage.

Public perceptions are no small matter for supporters of the research agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).  They wonder as does Millan: How does the agency get real and robust credit for its work, a likely life-or-death question given the agency's hopes to win voter approval of $5 billion more in funding in 2020?

CIRM says it is on track to run out of cash for new awards by the end of 2019 unless its ambitious fundraising plans are successful. And those are only a partial solution until billions more are provided by California citizens.

This week's "good news" stories generated national attention, albeit relatively modest, about CIRM-funded research that has led to to the first-in-human clinical trial for dry, age-related macular degeneration. The treatment uses technology that was described as "very exciting" by one researcher not connected with trial.

The headline on the New Scientist story on Wednesday said,
"Eye implant improves vision in people with age-related blindness"
Reporter Andy Coghlan wrote, 
"A patch implanted at the back of the eye has improved or stabilised sight in four people with severe age-related macular degeneration. The treatment enabled one 69-year-old woman to read 24 letters on a standard eye chart, when she could previously manage only seven.
"The patch is made of eye cells made from human embryonic stem cells, and it has been designed for treating the 'dry' form of macular degeneration, which accounts for 90 per cent of all cases, and affects 1.7 million people in the US."
Nowhere in the New Scientist story was it mentioned, however, that the state of California, through its stem cell agency, has pumped $36 million into the work. 

Likewise for the Los Angeles Times, whose story also did not mention the agency.  And likewise for articles on MIT ReviewMedicalXpress, HealthDay, WebMD, US News and World Report, Futurism and FierceBiotech. The list could go on, but you get the idea.

Even the press release from Regenerative Patch Technologies LLC of Portola Valley, Ca., which holds the exclusive license for the implant, buried the Golden State's contribution in the next-to-last paragraph of a nine-paragraph press release.   Plus the company failed to note that the funding was a not insignificant $36 million.

FierceBiotech did mention some private money that was involved in other AMD research, but ignored California's cash.

Readers not familiar with the traditions surrounding news stories about medical research might wonder why the California support received almost no attention. Generally speaking, the amount of cash and the funding source are all but ignored in such stories with some notable exceptions. How that has come about is not clear, but money talks in most circles. The scientist who has lost his or her appointment by failing to bring in sufficient grants can speak to that.

For the California stem cell agency, it is also likely to be a matter of survival. If it fails to receive the widespread public credit for what it believes is a strong and important body of work, it is likely to wither away in very short order. 
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