Friday, January 18, 2013

UC Davis Stem Cell Researcher: 'Ivory Tower' IOM Recommendations Harmful to California Stem Cell Agency

The $3 billion California stem cell agency has funded in the neighborhood of 500 to 600 scientists and institutions, reviving and starting careers and stimulating construction of $1 billion in new research labs around the state.

None of those recipients, as far as we know, has come forward to comment publicly on the sweeping recommendations by Institute of Medicine for changes at the agency. Until today, that is.

UC Davis researcher Paul Knoepfler, who may be the only stem cell scientist in the United States with a stem cell blog, weighed in with his thoughts today, which do not align with those of the blue-ribbon IOM panel.

“Harmful” is one word that Knoepfler, who is a stem cell agency grant recipient,  used to describe the recommendations. He predicted “extremely negative repercussions” that “would actually make CIRM less effective and less responsive to patients and California citizens.”

He wrote that the IOM report, which will come before stem cell agency governing board next week “...seems more like an ivory tower intellectual exercise than an operative, realistic guide to a dynamic agency that must operate in the real world.”

He defended the CIRM governing board, which came under fire from the IOM for conflicts of interest. Institutions linked to board members have received about 90 percent of the $1.7 billion that the board has awarded, according to compilations by the California Stem Cell Report. The IOM said,
“Far too many board mem­bers represent organizations that receive CIRM funding or benefit from that funding. These com­peting personal and professional interests com­promise the perceived independence of the ICOC, introduce potential bias into the board’s decision making, and threaten to undermine confidence in the board."

Knoepfler said,
“(The) IOM itself admits there is no evidence that any conflicts of interest have ever guided (the agency's governing board) decisions. Not one example.”
Knoepfler also wrote,
“Interestingly, highlighting the extremely sensitive nature of this issue, while I’ve been talking with many bigwigs about this, at this point no one is wiling to go on the record with an opinion about it except one courageous soul, Don Reed (see his piece here).”
There is a reason for that. The IOM is the most prestigious organization of its sort. Its studies are described as the gold standard. And it has a rareified membership that many scientists seek to join. So few are ready to give the organization a smack on the nose. Likewise, California researchers are loath to publicly criticize the stem cell agency because it holds the strings to the purse that finances their careers.

California scientists, however, should be asking themselves a bottom-line question. Do they want to see the stem cell agency continue for another 10 to 20 years? Under the best of circumstances, that may be unlikely given the other pressing needs that the state faces. But if CIRM directors do not forthrightly address the recommendations of the IOM panel, the fate of the stem cell agency is exceedingly uncertain.
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