Monday, August 24, 2009

Good Faith, Loopholes and CIRM

SAN FRANCISCO – The $3 billion California stem cell agency says a headline carried last week by the California Stem Cell Report is “damagingly misleading” and would like a correction.

We disagree and will tell you why. But the matter goes beyond a mere eight words. It deals with trust, good faith and more.

The headline in question is: “CIRM Rolls Back Effort to Undercut Affordable Access.”

The subject involves a proposed – but now retracted – major change in CIRM intellectual property regulations. The revision was quietly fast-tracked for what would have been final approval last Thursday by the CIRM board at its two-day meeting here. Fortunately, the loophole was caught the day before the meeting by John M. Simpson, stem cell project director of Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca. He wrote a letter challenging the revision. We published an item on his comments along with the text of his letter. As a result, the proposal was pulled back.

Simpson has been deeply involved in the CIRM proceedings that hammered out the IP rules and their provisions for affordable access. The process took place over several years, and CIRM directors have repeatedly reaffirmed their commitment to affordable access to any taxpayer-financed therapies. Affordability is also part of the promise of Prop. 71, the ballot initiative that created CIRM. Simpson has publicly praised the CIRM IP process for its openness and diligence and has expressed great respect for IP Task Force Chairman Ed Penhoet.

On Wednesday, the day after Simpson discovered the loophole, Chairman Robert Klein called Simpson to tell him that the offending provision was being dropped. Klein also mentioned it to us at the meeting here later that day. But loophole did not come before the full board until late in the meeting the next day.

No one at the session disputed Simpson's conclusion that the change in wording was a “tremendous loophole” that would endanger affordable access and also could prove to be a major benefit to the biotech industry.

Rather CIRM's question concerning our headline involves the intent of changing previously agreed upon language. The matter also involves whether CIRM was honoring its principles by advancing the proposed change in a manner that appeared surreptitious, at the least. The revision was buried in 491 lines of prolix regulatory language that was described on the board's agenda as merely a “consolidation” of previous regulations.

The loophole – which involved only a few words – was also proposed at a time when CIRM is aggressively moving to embrace the biotech industry. According to its strategic plan, it will take a leading role – at taxpayer expense – to lobby nationally to remove barriers facing the industry. All with the good intent, we should add, of speeding cures.

When the proposed revision came up during Thursday's board session, Elona Baum, CIRM's new general counsel who joined the agency in April after 12 years with Genentech, said that questions had been been raised about “sublicensing.” She said, “In the interests of clarity, the language was inserted.”

CIRM directors then formally acted to remove the offending language, which will go out for a 15-day public comment period before becoming official.

Shortly after Baum offered her comments, Don Gibbons, chief communications officer, sent me the following email about the headline in question.
“Having heard this discussion, I would hope you feel it is appropriate to self correct this damagingly misleading headline. It should have been clear this was never CIRM’s intent.”
The CIRM board, which is the ultimate authority at the stem cell agency, is to be commended for removing the loophole. But how and why the language was inserted is a matter in dispute.

Gibbons is paid $190,00 a year to polish CIRM's image. We understand why he does not care for our wording. However, both Simpson and I have been given to understand that the loophole did not result from merely a lack of legal felicity.

We asked Simpson for a comment on Gibbons' opinion concerning the headline. Here is what Simpson said,
“Either the lawyer responsible for the proposed change in the definition didn’t understand its implications, which implies incompetence or the lawyer completely understood, which implies deliberate intent to make substantive policy changes and subvert the process. Neither choice is pleasant, so I’ll simply celebrate the fact that when the ICOC (the CIRM board), particularly the members of the IP Task Force, was made aware of the situation, it was immediately rectified.”
Last Tuesday, we asked Gibbons for a comment on behalf of CIRM concerning the loophole. He never responded. We are asking him if CIRM has any comments on this item. We will carry any response verbatim.

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