Prestigious Panel criticizes California Institute of Regenerative Medicine

By Dave Andrusko

Wesley J. Smith

For years, bioethicist Wesley J. Smith has kept close tabs on the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, established after voters in 2004 approved a state ballot initiative, Proposition 71, which funded embryonic stem cell/human cloning research using $3 billion in bonds.

Over the past year, in particular, there have been mounting calls for accountability, along with examples of questionable behavior by CIRM, including lack of transparency and institutional back scratching. In September Wesley cited the work of watchdog David Jensen, author of the stellar California Stem Cell Report blog. In a post titled “Stem Cell Cash Mostly aids Directors’ Interests,” Jensen found

“With its latest round of awards earlier this month, California’s stem cell agency has now handed out $1.5 billion to enterprises linked to its directors. The figure amounts to 92 percent of the $1.7 billion awarded by the agency. The grants and loans range from $261 million to Stanford University, whose medical school dean, Philip Pizzo, sits on the agency’s governing board, to $170,500 to Children’s Hospital in Oakland, whose president, Bert Lubin, also is a member of the board. The University of California, Davis, has received $128 million. Claire Pomeroy, chief executive officer of UC Davis Health System, is another one of the 29 board members. In all, 27 institutions with past or present representatives on the agency board have received funding. None of this is illegal. And none of it is likely to change.”

Now it’s no longer Wesley and a few bloggers who are calling CIRM to task. In today’s Los Angeles Times, Eryn Brown reports on a highly critical report issued by independent experts convened by the National Institute of Medicine. “The board of California’s stem cell funding agency is rife with conflicts of interest and should be restructured to improve the integrity of its grant-making process,” Brown writes.

“The committee found that ‘far too many’ of the board members are from organizations that stand to benefit from the $3 billion the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is supposed to dole out to researchers over 10 years. Making matters worse, the panel said, the 29 board members are too closely involved in the agency’s day-to-day decisions.

“’They make proposals to themselves, essentially, regarding what should be funded,’ said Harold Shapiro, former president of Princeton University and chair of the 13-person committee that issued the report Thursday. ‘They cannot exert independent oversight.’

“The findings echo criticisms that have been made for years by independent groups that monitor how taxpayer dollars are spent.”

Approval of Prop 71 came based the assertion that there were some federal restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research and with enough taxpayer money there would be (to quote Wesley) “the promise of developing embryonic stem cell and therapeutic cloning cures.” However

“when that didn’t work out–-and desperate to show some progress for all the money CIRM has sucked up on Californians’ credit card–it changed its tune and began funding research into adult stem cells–you know, the very ones that we had been told really didn’t hold all that much promise? Sure, you remember. Well, the first drug developed in part with direct CIRM grants has just received FDA approval for a clinical trial, and waddya know, they were derived from cardiac adult stem cells.  What a hoot.”

There was a subtle and indirect reference in the Associate Press’ account. “Since cutting the first check in 2006, CIRM now finds itself at a crossroads. The federal research limits that existed when it was created have been relaxed and it recently shifted focus from basic research to funding projects that can swiftly begin human trials.”