New Stem Cell Agency Boss: I Won’t Take Job, Gifts Or Travel From Grantees

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In the wake of the former president of California's stem cell research funding agency jumping to the board of a company the agency funded, his successor declared he will not accept a job with any company funded by the agency within a year of leaving the post or accept gifts or travel from any company, institution or individual that receives agency cash.

The statement by Randy Mills, who joined the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in May, stopped short of a rebuke of former president and CEO Alan Trounson and may seem like a no-brainer for a quasi-public agency. But a watchdog of San Francisco-based CIRM said the action was needed to mitigate damage done when Trounson earlier this month joined the board of Newark's StemCells Inc.

The company (NASDAQ: STEM) in 2012 won a $19.4 million forgivable loan from CIRM to research the use of its purified neural stem cells as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease. The company also was approved for another nearly $20 million loan for research in spinal cord injuries but later opted to receive only the Alzheimer's loan.

Trounson recused himself from the CIRM board's public discussions about the StemCells loans because he is friends with StemCells founder and Stanford University professor Irv Weissman.

Trounson joined StemCells' board of directors a week after leaving CIRM.

Trounson's appointment as a StemCells director is allowed under California law but raised potential conflict of interest issues.

"I want the people of California to know that my sole interest in being at CIRM is to help advance stem cell treatment to patients who are in need," Mills said. "I will do so with a full commitment to transparency and by never compromising the integrity of our mission nor our trust to the taxpayers of California."

CIRM was created after California voters in 2007 approved Proposition 71 to fund the agency with $3 billion in taxpayer-supported bonds. The agency is considering funding options for the future, including asking voters to pony up cash again.

John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica, said Mills' statement "proves he understands the potential for conflict and is committed to maintaining a high standard of integrity.

"His action helps correct the damage done to CIRM's standing" by Trounson, Simpson said.

Nonetheless, Simpson pressed CIRM to make public all emails and letters between Trounson, StemCells and the company's employees and directors.

Ron Leuty covers biotech, higher education and China for the San Francisco Business Times.

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