Calif. stem cell grant raises concerns;

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Public interest groups criticize decision to award CHA Regenerative Medicine Institute nearly $3 million

The Scientist Magazine

Two public interest groups are raising questions about the recipient of a $2.6 million grant awarded by California’s stem cell agency. The watchdog groups have criticized the decision by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to pledge funding to the CHA Regenerative Medicine Institute (CHA RMI) of Los Angeles, citing numerous “red flags” about the organization and its affiliates.

According to CIRM spokesperson Dale A. Carlson, the grantees have so far been evaluated purely on scientific merit, and CIRM won’t distribute any money until staff members complete an administrative review of each application to verify the details of their affiliations, budgets, and medical and ethical standards. No checks will be cut “until we’re satisfied that each institution and each investigator is capable of living up to our standards,” said Carlson, who declined to speak specifically about the grant in question.

This month, CIRM announced the winners of 29 comprehensive research grants worth $74.6 million, on top of $45 million worth of grants awarded in February. Principal investigator Jang-Won Lee of CHA RMI will receive $2.6 million to establish human embryonic stem cells by somatic cell nuclear transfer, using frozen eggs and somatic cells from patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

The two agencies criticizing CIRM‘s decision, Center for Genetics and Society (CGS) and the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR), support embryonic stem cell research, but have been vocal critics of the California stem cell agency.

Only academic and non-profit institutions in the state of California were eligible for this round of grants. CHA RMI is a non-profit research center, but FTCR stem cell director John M. Simpson has charged that the organization’s relationship with for-profit Korean parent company CHA Health Systems may render CHA RMI ineligible. Of further concern, Simpson noted, CHA Health Systems chief executive Kwang Yul Cha has come under fire recently as a co-author on a scientific paper that was essentially identical to one published in a Korean journal. Cha was also a co-author on a controversial paper that showed prayer boosted the success of in vitro fertilization. “There are enough red flags that this warrants a closer look,” Simpson told The Scientist.

According to a statement released by CHA RMI, the organization was incorporated in California in 2005 and “has been engaged in adult and embryonic stem cell research at its Los Angeles laboratory… None of the member companies belonging to CHA Health Systems have any ownership interest in CHA RMI and none of the companies have any voting rights on CHA RMI’s Board.”

According to the statement, Jang-Won Lee earned his PhD from the University of Connecticut and has held positions at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and Children’s Hospital & Harvard Medical School. Lee could not be reached for comment.

Stuart Orkin, an oncologist at Dana Farber Cancer Institute and chairman of the grants review committee, told The Scientist that he couldn’t comment on the details of Lee’s application. But in a public summary of the proposal, the reviewers noted that the “research plan is nicely developed” and the proposal “includes preliminary data in pigs” which “adds strength to the plan.” The reviewers also noted a “large collection of letters of support.” The reviewers’ primary criticism was that the proposal was “overly ambitious.”

Renee Reijo-Pera, co-director of the University of California San Francisco’s Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center and a recipient of a $2.5 million CIRM grant, told The Scientist that the CIRM application process is “so much more transparent than standard grant applications,” including that of the NIH.

“We have a process, it’s very thorough, and we’re following it,” said Carlson. “We’re doing our best to fund the very best science we can find.”
Contact the author Kirsten Weir at [email protected]

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