Stem cell integrity;

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Agency with bucks still has some blinders

The Sacramento Bee (California)

Hobbled by lawsuits, internal disputes and the hype of its own ballot campaign, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has limped along for two years, ripe with promise but short on money for stem cell research and laboratory construction.

That will soon change. Helped by a state loan of $150 million and $31 million from philanthropic organizations, the institute’s oversight committee is scheduled to reward $24 million in research grants in January to some of the California scientists who inundated it with 232 grant applications. In March, the 29-member oversight committee is expected to reward another round of grants worth about $80 million.

Those numbers are just a fraction of the research dollars that voters approved when they passed Proposition 71 in 2004. That ballot measure authorized $300 million to be spent yearly on regenerative science, particularly embryonic stem cell research, for a decade. Groups that oppose research use of embryos have so far blocked the state from selling bonds, so Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and nonprofit groups stepped in with stopgap funding.

Even with the institute’s diminished resources, $181 million is nothing to sneeze at. This pot of money represents the largest source of embryonic stem cell research funds in the country, and the oversight board’s decision in coming months could determine the trajectory of this budding scientific field. That’s why it’s essential the institute review these grant proposals with complete integrity, without the kind of potential conflicts that this page has warned about for two years.

Last month, the institute’s grant review committee of 15 scientists met behind closed doors at a San Francisco hotel and made recommendations about which scientists will receive the first $24 million round of research grants. Under policies approved by the institute, the reviewers don’t have to publicly disclose possible conflicts of interest — such as consulting relationships with companies that could benefit from the research or partnerships with scientists applying for funds.

Under this policy, the institute’s limited staff is in charge of policing conflicts and ensuring that reviewers recuse themselves at appropriate times during deliberations. At their meeting in San Francisco, the grant review committee went further — agreeing to publicly disclose which of their members recused themselves but not why.

Although this modification is better than nothing, it remains baffling why the institute can’t be completely transparent and publicly reveal the financial interests of its grant reviewers. Scientists regularly disclose such conflicts when presenting papers at conferences. They should do so when making recommendations on grants that involve millions — and potentially, billions — of taxpayer dollars.

The institute has made some good progress this year, including adoption of a strategic plan that sets realistic goals and lowers the inflated expectations of the Proposition 71 “countdown for cures” campaign. If institute leaders could take another step and come clean about internal conflicts, they could go a long way toward securing the trust they have risked squandering the last two years.

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