Sunday, December 16, 2012

Southern California Newspaper Tackles Stem Cell Agency and UC Irvine Grants

The Orange County Register today zeroed in on the $3 billion California stem cell agency and its relationship to the local University of California campus in the wake of sweeping recommendations for changes at the eight-year-old agency.

The article by Melody Petersen was headlined “Ties to stem cell board lucrative.”

Petersen began her article with story of the $20 million award to StemCells, Inc., earlier this year and the firm's partnership with Frank LaFerla of UC Irvine, which is located in Orange County.

The award was rejected twice by reviewers at the stem cell agency but the governing board of the agency (CIRM) approved it on a 7-5 vote in September following lobbying on behalf of the company by the board's former chairman, Robert Klein, and others.

Petersen said the award was not the first time that questions have been raised about stem cell agency grants. She said that the 17-month study by the prestigious Institute of Medicine (IOM) and some of its findings, particularly those dealing with conflicts of interest, echoed criticisms that have been raised for years.

She wrote,
“Repeated independent reviews of the agency, including one by the (IOM) released this month, have found that its board is rife with conflicts of interest. In fact, of the $1.7 billion that the agency has awarded so far, about 90 percent has gone to research institutions with ties to people sitting on the board, according to an analysis by David Jensen at the California Stem Cell Report, which closely follows the agency's operations.
While the agency has yet to produce a cure, Petersen said,
“What's clear already is that the money has transformed stem cell research in California and poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the state's universities, including UC Irvine.”
She noted that the CIRM governing board is dominated by members from the UC system, including two professors at UC Irvine.

Peterson continued,
“Before Proposition 71 (the measure that created the agency) passed, UC Irvine had less than ten stem cell scientists, who received about $1.5 million in funding each year. Now, after receiving $100 million in grants from the state agency, the university has sixty scientists working to advance stem cell research and teaching. It touts itself as one of the top stem cell research centers in the world. In 2010, it opened an $80 million four-story stem cell research center with the agency picking up $27 million of the cost.
“As UC Irvine has won increasing amounts of taxpayer money, its two professors who sit on the agency's board have risen in status on campus.
Susan Bryant
UC Irvine photo
“Professor Susan Bryant, an expert in regenerative medicine, was dean of the School of Biological Sciences when she was named to the agency's board in 2004. She was then promoted to vice-chancellor of research. In July, she was named the university's interim executive vice-chancellor and provost, its second most powerful administrator.
“When Professor Oswald Steward, a stem cell scientist, joined the agency's board in 2004, he was director of UCI's Reeve-Irvine Research Center for Spinal Injury. Since then, the scientists working in his center have received millions of dollars in grants from the agency. In May, the university rewarded Steward with an additional title: senior associate dean of research for the School of Medicine.”
“The two professors are prohibited from receiving any agency funds for their own scientific work. But so much money has been funneled into the stem cell field in California that it can be difficult to show their continued scientific efforts are not somehow benefiting. For example, Bryant co-authored a scientific article in 2009 with nine other scientists about the genetics of salamanders, which can regenerate limbs. In the report, the group recognized the state agency for partially funding their work. Bryant said that the money was received by another scientist in the group who was not employed by UC Irvine. She said the state agency has never given a grant for research involving salamanders. 'I have never-ever benefited from CIRM funding,' Bryant said using the agency's acronym.
Os Steward
UC Irvine photo
“Steward said he stopped his stem cell research when he joined the board in 2004. His board position, he said, 'has prevented me from taking on lines of research I otherwise would do.'
Tom Vasich, a campus spokesperson, said Bryant and Stewart's positions on the agency's board played no part in their promotions and success at the school.”
Petersen additionally reported that Steward and Bryant are not allowed to vote on grants to UC Irvine.

Petersen pointed out that the University of California has 16 members on the 29-member board. One of those is the chairwoman of the UC Regents, Sherry Lansing. Petersen also noted that three of the UC officials, including Steward, hold seats on the board as patient advocates.

Petersen is a recent addition to the Register's staff, joining it in November as an investigative reporter. She worked as a business reporter for the New York Times and authored  "Our Daily Meds," a book about the pharmaceutical industry. She shared in the top award in newspaper financial journalism when she was at the San Jose Mercury News.  

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