Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Fallout From the Trounson Affair: A Taint on the California Stem Cell Agency

Directors of the $3 billion California stem cell agency meet tomorrow in the San Francisco Bay Area, but the hottest topic is not on the agenda, and that is the Trounson Affair.

Alan Trounson
SF Business Times photo
The term is shorthand for the host of questions raised by the appointment July 7 of Alan Trounson, former president of the agency, to the board of StemCells, Inc. The company is the recipient of $19.4 million from the agency, cash that was awarded under unusual circumstances on a narrow 7-5 vote.(See here and here.)

Two days after Trounson’s appointment, the agency’s new president, Randy Mills, announced a “full review” of the activities involving StemCells, Inc., a publicly traded firm based in Newark, Ca.

News and commentary about the matter has slowly emerged since the appointment. None of it reflects well on the agency, which is trying to devise some way to secure public or private funding beyond 2017 when the cash for new awards runs out.

The most visible article appeared in the Sunday Los Angeles Times, which has a readership of 4 million in print and online. Michael Hiltzik wrote that cronyism is rife at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), as the agency is formally known.  He said,
“How bad are the conflicts? When the (29-member) board considered a proposal earlier this year to spend $16 million to attract three star scientists to California, so many members had to recuse themselves that only nine were left to vote. (Six ended up voting in favor.)
“When conflicts of interest are so rife that only one-third of your board can weigh in on a major policy issue, that's tantamount to not having any board at all.”
The tone was echoed in other pieces, including one in the San Francisco Business Times, where the headline said,
 “'Trounson affair' another strike against California stem cell agency.”
Other articles appeared in the San Diego U-T and the San Francisco Chronicle. The Orange County Register published an editorial that said the agency has “operated as a cash cow for a tiny circle of well-connected individuals and institutions.”

The Trounson appointment “reignites charges of cronyism,” said a headline on Pete Shanks of the Biopolitical Times wrote
"Let's be blunt: This looks like a pay-off. Technically, what Trounson and (Irv) Weissman (of Stanford) and StemCells, Inc., just did may not be illegal. But it's shameless.
The Scientist magazine wrapped the Trounson appointment into a piece that included news about a lawsuit against StemCells, Inc., that charged the company was endangering patients in clinical trials. 

The talk ricocheted around California’s stem cell community. One longtime reader of the California Stem Cell Report, who is a patient advocate, said in an email that Trounson’s conflicts of interest are “now even more transparent and make the previous grant decisions even more suspect.” “Self-dealing” is how this supporter of stem cell research described the situation.

Another reader and knowledgeable observer, who also must remain anonymous, described the Trounson appointment as “brazen.” And yet another who is quite familiar with the agency said,
“No one seems to understand what conflict of interest means.  I don't understand how they can even think that it is OK to do this.”
We should note that these remarks come from persons who back stem cell research and the agency.

In some ways, however, public attention to the matter could be described as minimal. The stem cell agency is little known to most people, and the Trounson Affair did not garner front page headlines. But like some sort of immortal cell, the stories will live on. Twenty years ago, the individual stories would have faded, buried in the morgues of the mainstream media. However, today, given Google searches, they will become embedded in all future reporting about the agency – not to mention knife-edged opposition research should another bond measure be placed before voters to fund the agency.

The Trounson Affair also highlights the need for the agency to stiffen its revolving door restrictions – the regulations that would have prevented his immediate appointment to a post at an enterprise that has benefited from the agency’s largess. It is a problem that will grow as the agency nears its financial demise. CIRM staffers will naturally be looking for places where they can find future employment.

The state has some minimal laws restricting future employment by agency personnel. But the agency needs to do more, a difficult task given that such action basically will change the terms of employment for staffers. But failure to confront the issue will only lead to more debacles.

CIRM’s “full review” of the situation is well-taken. However, the agency has not publicly defined even generally what a full review entails nor has it responded to questions from the California Stem Cell Report about the nature of the inquiry. The agency also has not indicated whether it is seeking an outside, independent entity to conduct the review. One possibility would be State Controller John Chiang, who is the chairman of the only state body (the Citizens Finanancial Accountability and Oversight Committee) charged with oversight of the agency. Another would be the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, the state department charged with enforcing conflict of interest laws.

One California researcher and CIRM grant recipient has noted that the flap obscures the work that the stem cell agency has done. In a comment filed on an item on the California Stem Cell Report, Jeanne Loring, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at The Scripps Research Institute, said that despite “the errors in judgment” at the agency, 
“CIRM is at the heart a remarkably effective driver of cutting edge research. By focusing on a narrow area of research and encouraging international collaboration, CIRM has singlehandedly pushed the whole world's stem cell research forward. If CIRM were a drug company, it would be considered miraculous that so many promising treatments are in the pipeline just eight years after it started."
Loring makes a good point. And it would be a shame if the good work of CIRM is discredited because of a failure to deal forthrightly, quickly and publicly with conflict of interest issues at the agency. 
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