California’s $3 billion stem cell agency names new chief

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San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco, CA — California’s $3 billion stem cell agency named Australian scientist Alan Trounson as its new president on Friday.

The 3-year-old California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, based in San Francisco, has been searching for a science chief since its first president, Zach Hall, retired at the end of April.

Twenty members of the 29-person committee that oversees the agency were in attendance at Friday’s monthly meeting in Los Angeles. All 20 voted for Trounson’s appointment, instantly propelling him to the forefront of stem cell research.

The institute, the nation’s biggest financial backer of human embryonic stem cell research, is authorized to dole out about $300 million annually in research grants.

In response to severe federal restrictions that President Bush placed on stem cell research in 2001, California voters passed Proposition 71 in 2004 to create the institute and give it authority to borrow and spend $3 billion over 10 years.

“The federal government has left a vacuum that California has had to fill,” said Dr. George Daley, a Harvard University researcher and president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. “The position is going to be the single most important steward of stem cell research internationally.”

Daley said that he was surprised that Trounson, a renowned researcher, would take the largely administrative job because he will have to give up his laboratory work in Australia.

“Alan is a world-class scientist,” Daley said. “His own scientific work is going to take a secondary role.”

Trounson, 61, said he is ready to start a new scientific chapter to a career spent in the laboratory.

“It’s just a wonderful conclusion to a career in science,” said Trounson, 61. “These things don’t happen often to us colonials down under.”

Trounson said he hopes to start work by the end of the year. He is to be paid $470,000 annually, unless the state doesn’t approve his relocation costs, in which case he will be paid $490,000 annually.

The state agency just this year began issuing its first grants after defeating two lawsuits that tried to put the institute out of business by claiming it was unconstitutional.

Trounson will oversee a staff of about 30 and help the agency meet its goals laid out in a 150-page plan Hall helped draft before he departed.

The most ambitious goal of the plan is to move the research out of the laboratory and into tests on people within 10 years. No known researcher has yet tested human embryonic stem cells in patients as scientists continue to determine whether the cells work properly when implanted into the body.

The agency concedes that it probably won’t fund larger-scale, pivotal trials that would be required for federal Food and Drug Administration approval.

Human embryonic stem cells are created in the first days after conception and give rise to all the organs and tissues in the human body. Scientists hope they can someday use them to replace diseased tissue.

Trounson earned undergraduate degrees from the University of New South Wales in Sydney and his doctorate in embryology from Sydney University in 1974. He is currently director of Monash University’s stem cell program in Melbourne.

He has launched eight biotechnology companies, including Singapore-based Embryonic Stem Cell International. Trounson said he is no longer an investor in that company, or any other, working with human embryonic stem cells.

“This is an excellent move,” said John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a longtime critic of the agency.

Agency board member Jeff Sheehy, who helped in the president search, said it was extremely fortunate to land someone of Trounson’s stature. “He’s a global leader in stem cell research,” Sheehy said.

Trounson is also a leading fertilization doctor and was the target of opposition criticism in the campaign to legalize human embryonic stem cell research in Australia, which that country’s parliament did in 2002. During that campaign, research opponents accused him of misleading the parliament when he showed a paralyzed rat walking after an injection of what he called embryonic stem cells. It turned out the injections were of stem cells taken from aborted fetuses rather than from days-old embryos. The two cell types are similar, but Trounson’s failure to distinguish between the two caused a furor and prompted Prime Minister John Howard to briefly consider cutting off government funding.

Trounson apologized for not being clearer and the research was ultimately legalized in Australia.

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