Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Stem Cell Conflict-of-Interest Rules Sent Back for More Work

BURLINGAME, Ca. – Directors of the California stem cell agency today sidetracked minor changes in its conflict of interest rules for the scientists who review applications for millions of dollar in state funds.

The scientists score the applications, and their decisions have determined the fate of 98 percent of thousands of applications over the last nine years. The agency has given out $1.9 billion.

The proposed conflict changes were referred to the directors' Governance Subcommittee for possible alteration. The action came after two directors, Jeff Sheehy and Steve Juelsgaard, found fault with them for different reasons.

Sheehy objected to the proposal after the staff said the changes would  allow two situations at the agency which have been determined to be conflicts of interest. Juelsgaard was concerned about ambiguous definitions of personal and professional conflicts as well as protection of privacy.

Today's proposal was largely triggered by a conflict of interest earlier this year involving two internationally renown scientists: Lee Hood, president of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, Wash., and Irv Weissman of Stanford, who are close friends and own a ranch together in Montana.

Hood was recruited by CIRM President Alan Trounson to serve as a scientific reviewer in a $40 million grant round involving Weissman. Trounson has been a guest of Weissman's at the ranch. One of the applications in the round involved Weissman, who could have received a payment of a few thousand dollars, and Stanford,which would would have been the site of a $24 million genomics facility.

The agency said it did not detect the relationship between Hood and Weissman until it was called to their attention by another reviewer who was also participating in the closed-door review of applications. The agency is conducting another review of the applications later this fall.

The other conflict case involved John Sladek of the University of Colorado.

The changes proposed today would create a threshold of $5,000 a year for conflicts involving salary or consulting fees. Less than that would not trigger a conflict situation. Other proposed changes to be taken up by the agency board involve personal and professional conflicts along with the nature of the economic disclosures that reviewers, all of whom are from out-of-state, must disclose privately to a handful of agency officials.

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