About Kevin McCormack and California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)
Kevin McCormack is the communications director at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the state’s stem cell agency. CIRM was created by voters when they approved Proposition 71 in 2004, giving the agency $3 billion to fund stem cell research in California. Kevin considers himself to be the official translator for the agency, working to turn complex language about equally complex science into everyday English that anyone can understand. Before joining CIRM he spent more than 20 years working as a journalist, most of that in TV news in San Francisco.
MTT: Give our readers some background on your professional experience and how you got involved with California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
Kevin McCormack (KM): I was a journalist, specializing in health and medical reporting, for more than 25 years before moving into media relations/communications. I actually did several stories on Proposition 71, the 2004 California ballot initiative that created CIRM, and so when the opportunity came up to be part of this work it was too good to pass up.
MTT: Could you tell us more about CIRM and what the stem cell institute does?
KM: We are a state agency, created by the voters of California in 2004 and given $3 billion to fund stem cell research in California. Here’s a link to the page on our website that has more details: https://www.cirm.ca.gov/about-cirm/history Our mission is simple, to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Everything we do has that mission in mind, in particular our funding of research that we hope will ultimately lead to new therapies.
MTT: Tell me where you are and what your focus is? Who are you working with?
KM: We are based in Oakland, California and we work mostly with stem cell scientists and researchers, both at academic institutions and companies. Our work is focused on funding research so the money we have mostly goes to this. However, as the person in charge of Patient Advocate Outreach I also do a lot of time working with the public, trying to keep them informed about the work that we do and the research we fund. I also work with many patient advocate organizations to let them know the latest in stem cell research for their specific disease or disorder.
MTT: What fees are associated with this type of service? How does your revenue model work?
KM: We are funded by the state so we don’t charge people fees. If we fund a clinical trial that therapy is provided free of charge to patients.
MTT: How does your company support the emergence of breakthrough treatments and technologies in healthcare?
KM: By funding them. We have a series of awards that are designed to support research at every level, from the most basic to therapies being tested in people – often for the very first time – in clinical trials. We have awards that encourage people to pitch us their best “high risk/high reward” ideas to stimulate innovation. We also have awards for technical devices that can help advance the field.
MTT: What sets California Institute for Regenerative Medicine apart from others?
KM: Other than the National Institutes of Health, we are the largest funder of stem cell research in the US. Because our money comes from the people of California we do not face the same kinds of limitations and restrictions as agencies that rely on the NIH for funding, and are less vulnerable to changes in political leadership at the national level.
MTT: Are your services available nationwide? What regions does your model serve?
KM: Most of our funding goes to institutions and organizations in California. However, companies outside California can apply to us for funding as long as that work is done in California.
MTT: What aspect of this platform has the biggest impact?
KM: Projects that are in clinical trials in people clearly have the biggest impact on patients because they have the potential to cure them of deadly diseases. We have seen this with two diseases that would typically prove fatal to people, and who are now being cured. Here are links to more information about those:
MTT: How many patients do you typically treat in a year and how do patients fund this type of treatment?
KM: We help treat dozens of patients a year and that number is growing with each year. Because we fund the clinical trials patients don’t have to pay anything for the treatments.
MTT: What are your thoughts on the potential for stem cell tourism both internationally and domestically in the US? What are the strengths and weaknesses from your perspective?
KM: I have grave concerns about stem cell tourism and it’s potential to harm patients; physically, emotionally and financially. When clinics – either here in the US or overseas – offer treatments that have not been part of a clinical trial to show that they are both safe and effective they are endangering patients. The clinics themselves stand to make a lot of money from these “therapies” but without evidence to show they work they are endangering and misleading patients. These treatments often costs tens of thousands of dollars and force families to go into debt to get a “therapy” that may do nothing for them. It’s not just the financial impact either. Many of these families turn to these clinics because they have run out of treatment options for their condition. These clinics prey on this desperation and offer hope where there is none.
MTT: How do you think preventative medicine can be made more accessible by medical tourism?
KM: If these clinics start doing well-designed, scientifically rigorous studies and offer their treatments as part of a clinical trial then we will be able to determine if they are safe and effective. It would be wonderful to be able to tell people that what they are buying will help them but until these clinics start to actually document and study the impact on patients all that we can say is that patients will end up spending a lot of money and get little if anything in return. Access to medical tourism is not the problem. The problem is access to treatments that actually work.
MTT: From your perspective, where do you see the industry going?
KM: Hopefully more and more clinics will agree to do scientifically rigorous studies of the treatments they offer, to show that what they are doing is safe and effective. But if they choose not to do that I hope to see the industry collapsing or being shut down so that they are no longer able to prey on vulnerable individuals.