Politics Enters State’s Stem Cell Research Program

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Just as Obama’s election opens the door to progress, Democrats and Republicans square off over a key appointment.

SACRAMENTO, CA — On the cusp of a new era in stem cell science, Democratic heavyweights are pushing to install the outgoing California Democratic Party chief in a leadership post at the state’s $3-billion research program.

Art Torres, who served two decades as a state lawmaker before assuming theparty chairmanship a dozen years ago, is being backed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California and Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, among others.

Torres’ opponent for vice chairman on the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is Republican biotech executive Duane Roth, supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Roth, a member of the stem cell board for more than two years, has spent three decades in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

The push for Torres comes as embryonic stem cell research hits some key milestones. With the ascent of President Obama, a longtime ban on federal funding enshrined by the Bush administration is expected to be reversed.

Last week, a Menlo Park, Calif., firm announced it had won federal regulatory approval to conduct the first human trials of a medical treatment developed from embryonic stem cells to address spinal cord injuries.

With that backdrop, the nomination of Torres for the key post at the agency has raised some eyebrows.

"I’m surprised," said Jesse Reynolds, a policy analyst at the Oakland-based Center for Genetics and Society. "I’m not aware of any extensive involvement on his part with stem cell research. Then again, he’s obviously well-connected."

"With Torres, you get a new face," said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog. "But there also is a bit of irony over the politicization of an agency created to avoid Bush politics."

In a letter to the institute’s board, Schwarzenegger said Roth would provide "a seamless transition" because of his experience. But Torres boosters say he brings policy acumen along with the political smarts needed to guide the agency — created by a 2004 ballot measure that authorized $3 billion in public money for stem cell research — into a new age.

During his 20 years as a state lawmaker, Torres held chairmanships of the Assembly Health Committee and the Senate Joint Committee on Science and Technology. Backers say he was instrumental in securing early funding for AIDS research, and he sits on the boards of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the Los Angeles-based organ transplant foundation OneLegacy.

"I wouldn’t fault anyone if they thought of Art as purely political, but they forget he got into elected life because he’s into policy," said David Serrano Sewell, a member of the stem cell institute’s board. "He’s smart, he’s independent, he calls it as he sees it and he has relationships both in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento that will be beneficial to our mission."

In addition to Pelosi, Feinstein, Boxer and Kennedy, who wrote a laudatory letter on Torres’ behalf, the outgoing party chairman has won backing from California’s Democratic state Senate and Assembly leaders as well as from Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, Treasurer Bill Lockyer and Controller John Chiang. Torres would be second in command to the chairman, Robert Klein, a wealthy Northern California developer who helped spawn and bankroll the ballot measure.

Since its creation four years ago, the stem cell agency has wielded considerable influence in the world of research. Its 29-member governing board — the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee — has so far handed out $635 million, the bulk of it to California universities, including Stanford and UCLA.

Critics have grumbled that the agency has oversold promises of stem cell cures and of the potential payback to state coffers from royalties earned from scientific discoveries. Even with last week’s announcement of a clinical trial, many institute boosters say real-world treatments, and any financial benefit to the state, might be a decade away.

Torres, who traveled to Washington for Obama’s inauguration and to host a party for California Democrats, said he has a "passion" for the institute’s mission and hopes to help keep the state at the forefront of research. He has already held talks with leaders in the state Legislature and Congress, he said, and is hopeful that Obama’s economic stimulus package will contain additional funding for California’s research efforts.

"At the federal level, this has been ideologically blocked for eight years," Torres said. "Now there can be a perfect alignment of the stars that will help stem cell research move ahead."

A choice of vice chairman was expected by the institute’s board this week but has been delayed until February so that a subcommittee chaired by Sherry Lansing, the former Paramount Pictures chief executive who sits on the board, can look into precisely what role the vice chairman should fill. The 2004 ballot initiative says the second-in-command’s primary duties are to "support the chairperson" in such tasks as negotiating, financial oversight and representing the agency to government and scientific panels.

In early December, the board wrestled over similar issues before approving a $150,000-a-year salary for Klein, who previously had served without compensation.

The board vote came after Schwarzenegger wrote to express "deep concern" over reports that members could have awarded Klein a salary of more than $500,000 and could assign $300,000 in pay to the eventual vice chairman.

Torres said that he would need a salary if named vice chairman, but that healso plans to do consulting work in areas not in conflict with his stem cell oversight duties.

Roth, the governor’s nominee, said he would not take a salary if chosen as vice chairman.

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