Burnham Chief Acted Improperly On Stem Cell Grant

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Burnham Institute president John Reed improperly tried to influence a grant decision by California’s $3 billion stem cell program, a state ethics committee said last week.

However, no penalty will be levied on Reed, who remains on the board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. It said that since Reed’s intervention did not and could not have succeeded, no penalty was needed.

Stem cells are the "ancestral" cells that develop into the body’s tissues and organs. Stem cells are seen as useful in treating diseases and injuries, and also as an economic engine for biotech, a highly desirable industry. So the question of who gets the grants has been contentious.

The Fair Political Practices Commission closed its year-old investigation with a Jan. 7 warning letter. The commission, which enforces the state Political Reform Act, can levy fines of up to $5,000 per violation.

In August, 2007, Reed urged the stem cell program to reconsider a rejected grant application from an employee at Burnham. The group Consumer Watchdog alleged that Reed’s action was forbidden as a conflict of interest. It filed a complaint with the commission in December of that year.

Burnham plays a leading role in San Diego County’s large stem cell research effort, which to date has won more than $50 million in research grants. It’s allied with the Salk Institute, The Scripps Research Institute and UC San Diego in the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine. In May of last year, the consortium won a $43 million grant to construct a research center in San Diego.

With such large sums of money at stake, critics such as Consumer Watchdog say strict oversight is required to make sure grants are awarded on the basis of quality, and not politics.

Reed isn’t the only member of the stem cell board, known as the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, to run afoul of conflict of interest rules.

The oversight committee rejected 10 grant applications in December, 2007, because five members of the 29-member committee had broken the rule against lobbying for grants on behalf of institutions they helped govern. However, the committee determined that the violations were unintentional.

Conflicts of interest are unavoidable on the oversight committee because of its makeup. Its members include representatives of institutions engaging in stem cell research under Proposition 71, the initiative California voters passed in 2004.

When conflicts arise on a matter, oversight committee members are supposed to abstain from taking part.

Contact staff writer Bradley J. Fikes at (760) 739-6641 or [email protected]. Read his blogs at bizblogs.nctimes.com

Consumer Watchdog
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