CIRM Chief Stays On, But Vows To Find Successor Quickly

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Klein.JPGThe architect and chairman of the California’s $3 billion stem cell agency is set to keep his job for a little longer. In a near-unanimous decision with one abstention, the agency’s board of directors resolved today to reelect Bob Klein — the man who co-wrote the ballot initiative that created the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and then served as the agency’s only chairman for the past six years — to another six months to help the organization identify a suitable successor.

“I’m going to be aggressively trying to find a replacement,” Klein told Nature Medicine. “Going forward here, we’re going to have the time to go through a process to define the criteria" for the next chairman.

Klein had previously vowed to step down from the agency’s helm at the end of his term this week. In his place, state officials tasked with nominating his replacement originally tapped current vice-chairman Art Torres as well as Alan Bernstein, executive director of the New York-based Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, as possible successors. But after Bernstein, a Canadian national who formerly headed the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, was forced to pull out of the race at the beginning of the month because of a state law requiring the head of a public agency to hold US citizenship, and Torres, a former state Senator, last week withdrew his nomination, Klein effectively became a shoo-in for the post.

Not everyone was happy with this scenario. In a strongly-worded letter sent two days ago, state Controller John Chiang urged the CIRM board members to delay their decision and start anew with fresh nominees. “It is clear that the current selection process is fundamentally flawed,” Chiang wrote. “The taxpayers who provide the funds for CIRM must be assured that the chair and vice chair are selected in an open, transparent process — not through a backroom deal or by default because a deal has fallen apart.”

The CIRM leadership opted to move ahead and reelect Klein anyway. Of the 22 board members present at today's meeting (not including Klein who recused himself from the vote), only Jeff Sheehy, director for communications at the University of California-San Francisco's AIDS Research Institute, abstained from the decision to approve Klein's extension. “It sends a message that we support Bob Klein," says board member David Serrano Sewell, a lawyer with the San Francisco city attorney's office. “This is an endorsement of his leadership and vision.” Sheehy had previously cried foul about the way Klein allegedly engineered Bernstein's nomination.

Yet although the board members overwhelmingly voted in favor of Klein’s reappointment, which, under the terms of the agency’s statute, means he could serve as chairman for another six year term, they also passed a motion calling on Klein to find a replacement and step down within 180 days if not sooner. At today's meeting, the board also routinely reelected the agency's co-vice-chairmen Art Torres and Duane Roth.

“This path that they’ve gone down is a face-saving path for Klein who screwed up this election by trying to manipulate it and tap his own successor,” says John Simpson, stem cell project director of the Santa Monica-based advocacy group Consumer Watchdog. “He needs to let go and let the board step up and exercise its oversight responsibilities without constantly trying to pull the strings.”

Klein insists that he didn’t intend to remain chairman. Over the past year, he says, a handful of other candidates were considered for the job, but many of these had conflicts of interest, such as holding a state pension, that made them ineligible to head a state agency. Bernstein, who recently chaired an external panel that reviewed CIRM’s performance, clearly emerged as the frontrunner. But after the citizenship problem surfaced with only days to go for nominations were due, Klein agreed to stay on unpaid on a temporary basis.

“I had not planned to be in this position and I do have very important family responsibilities,” says Klein, citing his son’s diabetes and his wife’s ongoing battle with breast cancer. “But I have a commitment to the people of California to drive therapies forward and we’re not done. It is a responsibility that I can find someone who can drive that second phase of our agency’s mission.”

Although the ballot initiative that created CIRM outlines some of the criteria for chairman, including a history of patient advocacy and experience with bond financing, Klein says that within the next two months he plans to work with the board’s governance committee to better define what the agency is looking for in its new leader. For his part, Klein says he would like someone with industry experience who has worked with US drug regulators in the past.

Notably, Bernstein’s name is not necessarily off the table. According to Klein, California’s attorney general-elect Kamala Harris will look into the legality of a 1978 attorney general decision ruling that the requirement of citizenship for holding public office is unconstitutional. The attorney general’s Web site states that such opinions “have been accorded ‘great respect’ and ‘great weight’ by the courts,” although they do not technically define the law. Bernstein declined to comment for this story.

Image of Klein at CIRM's San Francisco headquarters by Elie Dolgin.

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