Monday, May 23, 2005

Political Interference, Venture Capitalists and a Personal Plea

Three members of the Oversight Committee of the California stem agency have put together a compelling defense of the agency, pleading for rejection of efforts to tighten oversight of the institute.

The authors are Joan Samuelson, David Serrano Sewell and Jeff Sheehy. All are patient advocate representatives on the board and personally live with afflictions that might be helped by future therapies developed with stem cell research.

The article, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle last week, argues that the agency should be left to its own devices. Anything less could cost lives. Delays mean "someone who could have been benefited from new stem-cell based therapies -- perhaps one of us -- could die waiting."

"We beg, we plead: Let us get on with our work," they wrote, making an exceedingly personal argument that is difficult to oppose without appearing callous or worse.

Their article began, "A strange mix of religious ideologues, good-government activists and well-meaning Sacramento legislators have taken aim at the newly established California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the stem-cell research center established by Prop. 71. Some want to kill it outright in the courts, some may impair its effectiveness by overburdening it with needless regulation and others could bring it to a screeching halt with legislation drafted in haste."

They went on, "Two lawmakers in Sacramento have proposed an amendment that would reopen Prop. 71, sending parts of it back to Californians for another vote. This action, supported by some ideological opponents of stem-cell research, is neither warranted nor sound policy, but creates a delay that means someone who could have been benefited from new stem-cell based therapies -- perhaps one of us -- could die waiting."

The three stem cell directors concluded, "Continue to scrutinize our every move, hold us to the highest standards, but allow us to move urgently toward the cures that are so tantalizingly close. Lives are at stake."

Regardless of the emotional appeal by the three, the agency cannot escape its heritage. It was created in the crucible of politics and electoral government. That was the method chosen by its sponsors, including Robert Klein, its chairman. The agency now must live with the facts of its life. It is a public agency, albeit an unusual one. That means it is subject to review, both formally and informally, by the people of California and their elected representatives. And if the agency does not meet with their approval, it is subject to change by the same methods that created it.

Put in another context, if venture capitalists, some of whom are deeply involved in the agency, had put up $3 billion to finance a biotech start-up, they would certainly expect to have something to say about how it conducts its business. Entrepreneuers who find themselves tied financially to VCs often don't like the subsequent VC meddling. But the VCs provide the money, and they want to call at least some of the tunes.

If the sponsors of Prop. 71 wanted to keep government out of the stem cell business, they shouldn't have asked for government money. It is much too late to stuff that cat back in the bag. Sphere: Related Content

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