Stem-cell exec moves up date of resignation

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San Jose Mercury News (California)

The president of California’s $3 billion stem-cell institute said Tuesday he will resign earlier than expected because of his prostate cancer and what he called a contentious meeting Friday over the agency’s plans to build stem-cell laboratories.

Zach Hall, who became president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in March 2005, said in December that he planned to retire in June. But on Tuesday, Hall, 69, announced in a letter to his colleagues that he will step down on April 30.

Hall, who declined to return a reporter’s calls for comment, said in his letter that the main reason for resigning this month is that he recently was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which will require surgery in May.

But he also cited “the exceedingly contentious and occasionally personal tone” during Friday’s meeting of an advisory group studying how to spend about $275 million on new stem-cell laboratories in California.

The advisory body, composed of several institute board members and real estate experts, already has sought applications from universities and others for some of the lab money, and plans to seek more applications in the next few months. But the group wants to take “a longer and more deliberative approach” to the process than Hall said he has time to oversee.

Moreover, given the tone of last week’s meeting, “it is in both my best interest and that of the institute for me to step down at this time,” Hall’s letter said.

The day after the meeting, the chairman of the advisory group, Albert “Rusty” Doms, a Southern California real estate specialist, also announced his resignation, effective Tuesday. Doms also could not be reached for comment. His letter of resignation, which gave no reason for his departure, said he had enjoyed working with the institute.

Institute spokesman Dale Carlson said he didn’t know if Doms’ resignation was related to Friday’s disagreement. Institute Chairman Robert Klein said he understood Doms’ primary reason for resigning was to assist a panel overseeing completion of a hospital in the Los Angeles area.

David Serrano Sewell, who is the advisory group’s vice chairman and an institute board member, said he was surprised by Hall’s and Doms’ announcements. He said Doms and the rest of the group on Friday wanted to ask the board to hold workshops or hearings to gather more information about the need for new laboratories before seeking applications for the money. But he said Hall felt that might unnecessarily delay construction of the facilities.

“Was it a heated debate? Toward the end of the meeting, yes,” Serrano Sewell said.

Since voters created the institute in 2004, its meetings generally have been collegial. But some disputes have occurred, usually between its academic or business members and its advocates for people suffering from various ailments.

Although it’s unclear if Hall’s letter signals a serious division within the agency, John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, found it troubling.

“It just seemed kind of bizarre to me,” Simpson said, adding that he hoped the institute’s officials don’t unduly rush into issuing grants to build stem-cell laboratories. Given the amount of public money involved, he said, “if they want to have a process that takes a little longer to get things right, that seems to me to make sense.”

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