State stem cell program head suddenly resigns

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Zach Hall, president and chief scientific officer of the California Proposition 71 stem cell program, abruptly announced his resignation Tuesday, citing ill health and an increasingly bitter dispute over a planned $300 million construction boom for new research laboratories.

Separately, a Southern California real estate expert announced his decision to quit as the head of a working group advising the stem cell agency on construction grants.

The surprise departures raise new questions about the ability of the Prop. 71 program to move forward with a $3 billion research effort authorized by California voters in the November 2004 election. The latest dispute centers on the pace of awarding grants to expand laboratory facilities, which stem cell officials say are badly needed to carry out Prop. 71-backed research.

Hall, 69, is a neuroscientist and former senior administrator at UCSF and the National Institutes of Health. He brought scientific credibility and management expertise to the fledgling state program, created to get around federal restrictions on grants for controversial human embryonic stem cell research.

Hall made clear from the beginning that he didn’t intend to stay beyond the startup phase. He had previously announced plans to retire at the end of June while a search committee hunted for a replacement.

Instead of the orderly transition that timetable suggested, Hall gave two weeks’ notice in an e-mail Tuesday to board members of the Prop. 71 agency, called the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
His resignation takes effect April 30.

Hall told members of the stem cell agency’s Independent Citizens Oversight Committee that he was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer and plans to have surgery in early May.

He also said that he was stepping down early because of “the exceedingly contentious and occasionally personal tone” of a recent meeting of the working group created to advise the stem cell agency on the $300 million construction program.

Meanwhile, real estate developer Albert “Rusty” Doms of Manhattan Beach submitted his own resignation as chair of the facilities working group by a fax dated April 15 to stem cell board chairman Robert Klein. Doms gave no reasons publicly for his sudden departure, effective Tuesday.

Hall declined interview requests, and Doms couldn’t be reached for comment.

Klein was part of a previously scheduled meeting of a presidential search panel Tuesday, where some board members first learned of Hall’s resignation. Klein said the timing of the search won’t change, suggesting that a temporary chief executive may be designated until a permanent choice is made, possibly at a board meeting in June.

On Tuesday, board members discussed a “long list” of about two dozen applicants for Hall’s job in a closed session. Interviews with about six top contenders are expected during the next few weeks.

Jeff Sheehy, a member of the stem cell board as well as the real estate advisory panel, said that health and retirement plans aside, Hall also got fed up attempting to placate warring factions.

Recent disputes have pitted leaders of UC campuses and scientists, who tend to favor rapid expansion of research capabilities, against patient advocates who are urging more time to study how construction projects would dovetail with taxpayer interests and research priorities.

“Zach identified a cultural divide that existed between the scientist members and the patient advocates, and he didn’t want to straddle it anymore,” Sheehy said.

John Simpson, who has been monitoring the stem cell program on behalf of a Santa Monica nonprofit called the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said the two resignations made public Tuesday clearly signaled problems in one of the most critical aspects of the stem cell program.

“I’m troubled by the way all this seems to have exploded,” he said.

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