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UPDATE: PUBLIC INTEREST CHALLENGES TO CALIFORNIA STEM CELL INSTITUTE CONTINUE

Genetic Crossroads
August 4th, 2005

Legislative reforms. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) no longer faces the immediate prospect of a ballot initiative that would address some of its most widely criticized policies. The initiative, authored by state Sen. Deborah Ortiz (Dem.), would strengthen the institute's conflicts of interest policies, ensure that any treatments are available to low-income Californians, provide for returns to the state, and more. But Ortiz placed it on hold after CIRM and the Senate leadership negotiated a compromise, in which Robert Klein, the controversial "stem cell czar" who chairs the CIRM's governing board, assured the Senators that a set of "enhanced" policies would be passed at the board's next meeting. A separate bill, SB 18, would require strong informed consent from women who provide eggs for research, prohibit the sale of eggs, and require a performance audit of the CIRM. It has passed the Senate and is in the Assembly.

Conflicts of interest revealed. Unfortunately, the proposed compromise policies remain inadequate. Most notably, they do not require that members of CIRM's "working groups," which will recommend grant awards and research standards, publicly disclose their personal financial interests. The Sacramento Bee has revealed that at least three members of the working group that will review grant applications have financial connections to companies that engage in stem cell research.

New criticism of Robert Klein. Criticism of Robert Klein has now emerged from several members of the CIRM's governing board, the Independent Citizens' Oversight Committee. At a meeting of an ICOC subcommittee called to work out details of the compromise policies, five members challenged Klein's bid to extend his power by making himself chair of the subcommittee. They also objected to Klein's proposal that the subcommittee rubber stamp his proposals. Several of these same members also raised questions at the July 12 meeting of the full ICOC regarding a number of high-value contracts about which the ICOC had not been informed.

An overview of the CIRM's administrative and financial problems is in last week's SF Weekly.

Expectation management. Meanwhile, the CIRM leadership seems to be working to rein in public expectations raised by promises made during the campaign last fall. Interim CIRM President Zach Hall recently cautioned that "we need to make people aware of how difficult it is to bring a new therapy to the market." And according to the San Diego Union Tribune, CIRM leaders are also backpedaling on campaign promises that the $3 billion in public funding will be repaid from profitable developments: "That money is unlikely to materialize, at least any time soon, according to those now charged with the task of creating policy for the institute."

First meeting of the Standards Working Group. CIRM's Research Standards Working Group met on July 6 and discussed the proposed guidelines for embryonic stem cell research issued by the National Academies. This was the first meeting of a CIRM working group and was open to the public, due to the work of the Center for Genetics and Society, Californians Aware, Charles Halpern, and other public interest advocates.

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