Stumping for Stem Cells

The most recent poll on California’s Proposition 71 (search) concerning state funding of embryonic stem cell research indicates that 46 percent of likely voters support the measure, 39 percent oppose it and 15 percent are undecided.

I wonder how those numbers would change if those “likely voters” knew what Proposition 71 was really all about — a transfer of $3 billion from already strapped California taxpayers to already wealthy venture capitalists and researchers by means of emotional extortion. I addressed the dim prospects of embryonic stem cell research in an earlier column.

Consider the case of Dr. Irving Weissman, currently featured in a TV ad sponsored by the advocacy group campaigning for Proposition 71, Californians for Stem Cell Research and Cures (search). The ad introduces Dr. Weissman as the “California Scientist of the Year” for 2002 and as a cancer researcher at Stanford University.

“We must pass Proposition 71. As an M.D., I took an oath that the very highest priority was the treatment of patients. The chances for diseases to be cured by stem cell research are high, but only if we start. If the promise of stem cell research comes true, we can hope for a single treatment with the right stem cells to cure diseases every family has. Please join me in voting YES on 71,” pleads Weissman.

Weissman should have candidly concluded his plea for support by disclosing that he has a financial interest in the future of stem cell research, and that Proposition 71 could make him a very wealthy man.

In the ad and other interviews, Weissman is usually identified as the director of Stanford University’s Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine. Usually omitted is mention of Weissman’s other job as a director and consultant to StemCells Inc. (search), a troubled biotech company engaged in research with adult stem cells (as opposed to the embryonic stem cells which are the focus of Proposition 71).

Dr. Weissman is one of four founders of StemCells Inc. According to the company's annual report (Form 10-K) filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in April, in order “to attract and retain” the founders and to “expedite progress of the Company’s stem cell program,” StemCells Inc. gave the founders stock options representing approximately 1.6 million shares of company stock. 

StemCells Inc.’s stock price exceeded $15/share in 2000, but is now around $2/share, up from $1.24/share during the summer.

“We used to recommend the stock of StemCells Inc., which uses adult stem cells derived from organs, but while it has some patents, it still really hasn't done anything yet,” John McCamant, editor of the Medical Technology Stock Letter (search) in Berkeley, Calif., told the Chicago Tribune in September. “There's no question that stem cell research has been significantly stifled here in the U.S.” (The stifled research Mr. McCamant refers to is the limited funding available for research using embryonic stem cells due to ethical concerns.)

Dr. Weissman’s options are essentially worthless until the share price of StemCells Inc. exceeds $5.25. Though StemCells Inc.’s current share price is about $2, it’s been climbing since the campaign to pass Proposition 71 began.

As the measure would provide $3 billion to California stem cell researchers over 10 years — including to StemCells Inc.’s researchers — it’s easy to imagine the mere passing of Proposition 71 on Nov. 2 could send StemCells Inc.’s share price zooming past the $5.25 share price needed for Dr. Weissman’s options to be in the money.

The value of StemCells Inc.’s shares, for example, increased by 45 percent in August 2001 after President Bush announced he would support limited research with embryonic stem cells.

Neither Dr. Weissman nor Californians for Stem Cell Research and Cures seem to be interested in disclosing his ties to StemCells Inc.

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for Californians for Stem Cell Research and Cures said that Dr. Weissman "is a respected scientist" and that there was "no need for disclosure" of his connection to StemCells Inc.

StemCells Inc. had "no comment" on the matter, and, as of publication of this column, Dr. Weissman had not responded to requests for comment.

The failure of Californians for Stem Cell Research and Cures to disclose the StemCells Inc. connection goes beyond the TV ad — a LexisNexis search for the last six months could only turn up a few glancing references to Dr. Weissman as merely a board member of StemCells Inc. No one seems to know about his options deal. This contradicts what Dr. Weissman told a National Journal reporter in July 2001: “I always disclose [conflicts of interest] … Everybody in this area should do that.”

California taxpayers should consider what happened to pharmaceutical giant Novartis (search) when it dealt with Dr. Weissman. In May, 1999, Forbes Magazine reported that Dr. Weissman made $25 million when he sold his share of another stem cell research company he co-founded called Systemix Inc. (search) to Novartis in 1997. Based on a pre-merger report, Novartis expected that Systemix would have nine approved cancer and AIDS therapies producing $1.9 billion in revenue by 2003. But those products didn’t pan out and Novartis shut down Systemix in 2000.

Similar to that 1997 pre-merger projection, a “report” from Stanford University (one of Dr. Weissman’s employers) projects that Proposition 71 will generate up to $12.6 billion in state revenues and health care cost savings. Meet the new hype — same as the old hype?

One thing seems likely: Dr. Weissman — and probably many others supporting Proposition 71 — will cash out if the measure passes, leaving California taxpayers much the same way as he left Novartis — holding an empty bag.

Proposition 71 isn’t likely to lead to any cures — except for Dr. Weissman’s and others' ailing investments.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of "Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams" (Cato Institute, 2001).

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