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Read Making a Killing

home / healthcare / in the media

The Orange County Register (California)
Dec 18, 2004

by HANH KIM QUACH, The Orange County Register

Stem cells' tangled web;

Committee charged with overseeing state-funded research is already wading through political, financial and legal muck.
California's pre-eminent virologists, cardiologists, medical researchers and advocates launched the nation's single-largest taxpayer- funded stem-cell research agency Friday in a rocky meeting, beset by acknowledged open-meeting law violations and charges by consumer activists that they had been left out.

The struggles at the first meeting of the 27-member Independent Citizen's Oversight Committee might signal what lies ahead for the group as it prepares to dole out $3 billion for stem-cell research during the next 10 years.

The committee -- as well as the massive funding for research -- were created by Proposition 71, which voters approved by a wide margin last month.

The effort hinges on scientists' belief that it might be possible to cultivate and alter human embryonic stem cells and get them to grow into tissues and organs for a wide variety of medical purposes, from regenerating nerves in spinal-cord victims to repairing the heart.

But leaders will have to dodge federal, state and scientific community politics as they explore medical mysteries buried in cells smaller than a pinhead.

Robert Klein II, who spearheaded the ballot initiative that spawned the massive research agency, was named chairman of the committee.

The implementation of Proposition 71 will be a multifaceted undertaking. Here are some of the key issues facing the oversight committee:

Science

Scientists have said their efforts have been hampered by federal limits on stem-cell research, and they hope the new infusion of dollars and cell lines will allow for drugs, therapies and technologies to combat and even cure diseases.

Three separate working groups will decide which projects to fund in the state, yet little is known about how they will work and which standards they will use to evaluate research proposals.

Initially, the groups will follow the ethics and evaluation standards of the National Institutes of Health. But the board may adopt more strict rules.

"It's a remarkable adventure doing something that has never been done before. It would be like being invited to be on the group that designed the next moon mission," said Oswald Steward, director of Reeve-Irvine Research Center at UC Irvine, who was appointed to the committee.

Politics

California researchers will now have state taxpayer funds to study new embryonic stem-cell lines -- research that can't be done with federal funds under Bush administration rules.

The question is whether California's pioneering effort in stem-cell research field could cause the federal government to turn off the spigot to organizations that perform research that it bans.

Bush administration officials declined to discuss this issue, or any stem-cell policies, with The Register. Dr. Francisco Prieto, a Sacramento physician and member of the stem-cell oversight board, said "I hope people at the National Institutes of Health (which disperses federal stem cell funding) are good scientists. Even though I have politics, I check my politics at the door. I can't let politics affect my scientific decisions."

While trying to navigate federal politics, the board might also butt heads at home with the California Legislature.

Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, who wrote legislation in 2003 to set guidelines for stem-cell research in the state, wants a more transparent process for lawmakers to watch what is happening.

She has introduced legislation to require sufficient notice of what board members will discuss at meetings and allow the public to see potential conflicts of interest for staff members who will review grant applications and make decisions about which projects to fund.

Money

Proposition 71 will create the single-largest infusion in the world of funding for stem-cell research.

The annual allowance of research funding available to California equals about 75 percent of what is available nationally.

"The is just something entirely without precedent," said Steward.

Jerry Flanagan, an advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said, "The key concern is the huge amount of conflict of interest of board members with companies that stand to profit from research grants.''

For instance, three members of the Independent Citizen's Oversight Committee have connections to the world's largest biotechnology company, Amgen.

David Baltimore serves on the company's board. Edward Holmes serves on the board of Tularik Inc., a biotechnology company that is merging with Amgen. And Ted Love is president and CEO of Nuvelo Inc., a biopharmaceutical company that is partners with Amgen in the development of heart medication.

Who's in charge

On Friday, consumer groups criticized the unanimous and uncontested appointment of chairman Klein, who has no scientific background to lead the group.

"The public has trusted you with a huge sum of money and a huge reservoir of hope,'' said Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics in Society in Oakland.

She urged the board to take time before voting on a chairman.

But physicians on the board backed Klein because of his background as an aggressive patient advocate.

To complement Klein's background, the board also nominated as vice chairman Dr. Edward Penhoet, a former CEO of Chiron Corp. who has worked in science philanthropy and academia.
   
Information about the Independent Citizen's Oversight Committee is online at www.treasurer.ca.gov
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Staff writers Mayrav Saar and Gary Robbins contributed to this report.


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