Monday, December 10, 2012

IOM Report: Chronicle Says Prompt and Major Changes Needed at Stem Cell Agency

The San Francisco Chronicle today said the $3 billion California stem cell agency needs to make major changes “to avoid conflicts of interest and retain its credibility with the public, and it needs to do so sooner rather than later.”

In an editorial that came in response to the sweeping recommendations of the Institute of Medicine last week, the Chronicle declared,
“The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the stem cell funding agency that state voters approved in 2004, has been an 'innovative initiative' that's strengthened California's biotechnology industry and furthered the cause of basic stem cell research, according to a new independent review by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). But the agency needs to make some major structural changes in order to avoid conflicts of interest and retain its credibility with the public, and it needs to do so sooner rather than later.”
The editorial continued,
“The institute also needs to respond to the criticisms in the report, and to do so as quickly as possible. In particular, the institute needs to reform its management if it's to continue its mission after state funding runs out, as it appears the institute's chairman would like to do. Its governing board is too involved in day-to-day management. Nearly all the 29 members of that same board are on the payroll of institutions that have won grants - a serious conflict of interest.”
The Chronicle editorial was the first that we have seen on the subject, but additional comments from individuals have come the way of the California Stem Cell Report.

In an email, Tom Hall, a retired history professor in Berkeley, said,
“At the risk of being too cynical, it seems to me that those who expect the agency to implement the proposals are being more than a bit na├»ve. The proposals amount to asking people to commit suicide. Those presently involved have too much self-interest at stake to voluntarily drop out. Some kind of pressure will have to be applied.”
Hall referred to IOM recommendations that the 29-member CIRM governing board be barred from voting on individual grant applications and its members be removed from the grant review process. The IOM also said that the majority on the board should consist of “independent” members, which would likely mean that some current board members would lose their seats.

Another email from a person with close knowledge of the stem cell agency, but who must remain anonymous, said,
“I worry that CIRM (governing board) will once again circle the wagons and construct elaborate excuses for inaction and preserving the status quo. It's really terrible because you could make incredible advances if only the energy and dollars were directed properly.”
The Sacramento Bee ran a related editorial yesterday that called for “putting the brakes” on "the initiative machine," which was the process used to create the stem cell agency in 2004. The Bee said that initiatives are “driven by special interests and buttressed by a business network of signature gatherers, legal services and campaign consulting.”

The stem cell initiative, Proposition 71, also has become a two-edged sword for the agency, locking in management minutia and making it nearly impossible to make needed changes, such as those recommended last week by the blue-ribbon Institute of Medicine panel.

Among other things, The Bee indicates that it would support “a sunset of 10 to 15 years for laws passed by voters – or automatically putting such laws back on the ballot for voters to reject or affirm.”

The Bee has yet to editorialize directly on the IOM report.

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