Stem cell grant OKd for L.A. center linked to allegations

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Los Angeles Times

California’s voter-created stem cell institute approved a $2.6-million grant earlier this month to a Los Angeles-based research center whose founding president, a South Korean fertility expert, is embroiled in an international dispute over authorship of a medical journal article.

In addition, the medical director of an associated fertility clinic in the same location faces allegations of having an improper sexual relationship with a patient and lying to her about the number of eggs he had collected from her. The clinic and the research center are owned by the same parent company.

Critics of the closed-door grant reviews arranged by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine say the decision is a reason to open the process more to public scrutiny. “Had everyone known that a grant was being discussed to that organization, things would have gone slower and questions would have been raised then,” said John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica.

The CHA Regenerative Medicine Institute in L.A. applied for the grant to try to develop a line of human embryonic stem cells that could be used to study Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a fatal motor neuron disease long known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Dr. Kwang-Yul Cha, internationally known for his work on egg freezing, was listed on the medical institute’s 2005 articles of incorporation as its president. His name has since been removed.

“The CIRM grant was based on a thorough scientific review that speaks for itself,” said Jason Booth of Sitrick and Co., a public relations firm representing Cha.

Booth did not address the allegations concerning Cha or the fertility clinic, although Cha has previously denied any wrongdoing in the medical journal dispute.

In an e-mail to The Times, the lead scientist for the grant, Jang-Won Lee, said he was not involved in any of the allegations. The research, he said, will undergo thorough scientific and ethical review, and is aimed at developing therapies for a devastating neurodegenerative disease.

Dale Carlson, a spokesman for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, said the grant was approved on its scientific merit, but, as with all grants, it will undergo administrative scrutiny to ensure that it meets the institute’s standards before checks are mailed.

“John [Simpson], for one, should step back and take a deep breath, and let us do our work,” Carlson said.

The agency was created by Proposition 71 in 2004 to award $3 billion in grants, funded by bonds, for stem cell research.

A committee of scientists from other states and patient advocates from the institute’s citizen oversight board ranked the proposals and posted descriptions of them on the Internet, but names and other identifying information did not become public until the full oversight committee selected the winning grants March 16.

Meanwhile, Cha has been involved in a tempestuous academic dispute over who wrote a 2005 article that appeared in the U.S. medical journal Fertility and Sterility. The Times reported in February that another scientist, Dr. Jeong-Hwan Kim, said the article was a virtual reproduction of his doctoral thesis, previously published in South Korea. But the U.S. journal article lists Cha as first author; Kim is not listed.

Contacted by The Times last month, the U.S. journal’s editor in chief, Dr. Alan DeCherney, said, “I’m sure that it’s plagiarism.” He said he planned to recommend at a meeting next month that Cha and the other authors listed on the Fertility and Sterility paper be barred from writing for the journal for three years.

In a letter to The Times earlier this month, Cha’s attorney said that Cha had originated and provided oversight for the research and was unaware that Kim, a “junior researcher” in a lab attached to Cha’s hospital in South Korea, had already published a similar article in that country. Cha’s attorney said that Kim was not listed as an author because he could not be located to sign necessary paperwork before it was published.

Cha has previously said that he did not know he would be listed as primary author of the U.S. journal article.

Cha is the head of the parent company that owns fertility clinics and a large hospital in Seoul, as well as Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center and the CHA Fertility Center in L.A.

A second Times story in February reported that the Medical Board of California was investigating a patient’s allegations that Dr. Thomas Kim, medical director of the CHA Fertility Center, seduced her and lied to her about the number of eggs he had collected from her, causing her to continue seeking treatment from him.

The Medical Board said Wednesday that the investigation into the allegations against Kim was ongoing. Thomas Kim recently agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the patient, whose terms are confidential. His attorney previously told The Times that the relationship was consensual.

The fertility center and the CHA Regenerative Medicine Institute are housed at the same address, 5455 Wilshire Blvd. It is that proximity and close affiliation that concerns Marcy Darnovsky, associate director of the Oakland-based Center for Genetics and Society.

“Being that the CHA conglomerate has both a fertility center and this experimental research arm, how are you going to make sure there aren’t conflicts of interest there between the medical people who are actually extracting the eggs and giving the hormones and the researchers?” Darnovsky asked.

At issue, she said, is whether doctors treating fertility patients might withdraw more eggs for research, against the patients’ best interests.

Human eggs are crucial to stem cell research, but harvesting the eggs entails medical risks. The California institute created by Proposition 71 has strict guidelines on egg donations, requiring patients to give informed consent that they be used for research purposes and disallowing payments.

The type of research proposed by the CHA Regenerative Medicine Institute in its grant application — somatic cell nuclear transfer, or therapeutic cloning — requires unfertilized eggs.

In this process, the genetic material is removed from the eggs and is replaced by the genetic material from a patient’s cell. Then the egg must be coaxed into dividing as if it had been fertilized. The reconstructed egg is then allowed to develop to the embryo stage. Stem cell lines derived from it are genetically identical to the patient’s. The CHA proposal would use a patient with Lou Gehrig’s disease as a donor, thus creating a line of stem cells with the disease that could be used to study it and test treatments.
Contact the author at [email protected]

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