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California Stem Cell Missteps Continue

Genetic Crossroads
June 29th, 2006

Even as the California stem cell program attempts to move beyond its lawsuit-imposed delays, it keeps pushing the limits of acceptable behavior for a state agency. In just the past month, several questionable activities have generated new controversy.

CIRM loophole

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is trying to create a loophole around a prohibition in Proposition 71, the ballot measure that created the CIRM, on paying women to provide eggs for research cloning. The latest version of the agency’s research standards contains new language that would allow payments for “donations” in which eggs from a single retrieval process would be divided between reproductive and research purposes.

CIRM staff assert that the payment would be for only the eggs that would be used for reproduction, while the eggs that would be used for research would be considered donations —although, of course, the eggs themselves would be indistinguishable. Paying women to provide eggs for research is widely seen as inappropriate because it could induce economically vulnerable women to undergo risks that are known to be significant but are not well characterized. The National Academies stem cell research committee has also recommended against the practice. Public comment on the CIRM standards will be accepted through Thursday, June 29.

Klein's election-eve attack

California stem cell czar Robert Klein, chair of the CIRM’s governing board, sent an unusual email to patient advocates attacking a long-time champion of stem cell research because of her efforts to reform the CIRM in ways that would help protect the public interest. In a harshly worded letter emailed the night before California's recent primary election, Klein criticized state Senator Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento), who was running for California Secretary of State, for what he called an "anti-research crusade." Ortiz was the author of several bills supporting stem cell research in the years before Proposition 71, and was a vocal supporter of the ballot measure. But since its passage in November 2004, she has authored or co-authored several bills that would increase government control and public oversight of the CIRM.

Klein signed the letter as chair of a previously unknown group, Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures. More disturbing than its misleading and inappropriate content is Klein's resumption of a stem cell research advocacy position outside of his role as CIRM board chair. Just after Klein became chair of the CIRM’s governing board in early 2005, the campaign structure that he had led transformed itself into a lobbying and advocacy group, also headed by Klein. Under pressure from the Center for Genetics and Society and others, who pointed out that a state official should not also head a lobbying group, he relinquished his advocacy role.

Now it appears that Klein has again taken on a highly questionable position. In a statement, Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures, the new group, confirmed that it is a descendant of the Yes on 71 campaign, that it is chaired by Klein, and that it operates out of his corporate office. Click here to read Klein’s letter, the group’s statement, and more analysis.

Donation from biotech executive

As reported in the last issue of Genetic Crossroads, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine was the beneficiary of a gala fundraising dinner held on May 22. Under public pressure, the CIRM released the names of the donors, but not their institutional affiliations. Internet research revealed that at least one is the CEO of a company that plans to seek grants from the agency.


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