California Groups Protest Stem Cell Grant, Seek Probe

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Bloomberg News

California’s stem cell agency should investigate CHA Regenerative Medicine Institute, the Los Angeles affiliate of a Korean health-care company, before giving it a $2.6 million research grant, two consumer advocacy groups said.

The groups raised questions about CHA Regenerative Medicine’s nonprofit status and about charges that officials linked to the company had committed plagiarism in published research papers.

Last week, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine said the Los Angeles unit, owned by CHA Biotech of Seoul, is among state groups getting a total of almost $75 million to conduct embryonic stem cell research. The CHA unit proposes to use its grant to develop therapeutic cloning, a process that disgraced South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-Suk claimed to have used in 2005 to create human stem cells.

“Did CHA Health Systems establish this subsidiary in order to pursue California public funding, at a time when South Korea government funds were unavailable because of the Hwang Woo-Suk cloning scandal?” asked Jesse Reynolds, a policy analyst at the Center for Genetics and Society, in an e-mailed statement late yesterday. “The CIRM should have known to exercise greater scrutiny.”

Reynolds, whose organization is based in Oakland, California, questioned whether the Los Angeles unit is actually a nonprofit as required by the funding agency, known as CIRM.

‘Rigorous Peer Review’

Jang-Won Lee, a research scientist at CHA Regenerative Medicine, said in an e-mail that the institute’s grant application “underwent a rigorous peer review of scientific merit and was deemed worthy of funding.”

The institute’s work is aimed at developing therapies for ALS, a “devastating neurodegenerative disease,” he said. ALS, short for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the Baseball Hall of Fame player who contracted the illness.

CIRM has a stringent grants administration policy in place and I have confidence that our work will stand up to their high standards,” Lee said. “The research will undergo critical review and oversight with complete transparency.”

A representative of CHA Biotech in Seoul didn’t have an immediate response when contacted earlier today.

Freeze the Grant

A second advocacy group, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, called on the state stem cell agency to freeze the grant while it looks into the institute’s corporate links. The Santa Monica, California-based group also raised questions in an e-mailed statement yesterday about a plagiarism scandal that has surrounded Kwang-Yul Cha, the chairman of the institute’s parent company, CHA Biotech.

The Los Angeles Times reported last month that Cha was listed as the primary author of a paper in the U.S. medical journal Fertility and Sterility that was a near copy of a junior researcher’s doctoral thesis.

Dale Carlson, a spokesman for the stem cell agency, said in a telephone interview that no money would be awarded to any group until a six-week administrative review by the agency’s staff had been completed. The review will examine, among other issues, whether each grantee is eligible for funding under the agency’s regulations.
To contact the reporter on this story: Rob Waters in San Francisco at [email protected]

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