Wednesday, July 23, 2014

California Stem Cell Agency Director Prieto Defends Agency in Trounson Affair

One of the long-standing directors of the $3 billion California stem cell agency has taken issue with an item earlier today headlined “Fallout From the Trounson Affair: A Taint on the California Stem Cell Agency.”

In an email, Francisco Prieto, a Sacramento physician, said, among other things, that it is “grossly unfair” to say that none of the media coverage and other reaction in the matter reflects well the agency. Prieto, who has served as a CIRM director since 2004, said “the agency had nothing to do with it.”

The item this morning discussed reaction to the news earlier this month that the agency’s former president, Alan Trounson, was appointed to the board of StemCells, Inc., which is the recipient of $19.4 million in funding from the stem cell agency. Concerned about a conflict of interest, the agency has announced a “full review” of all StemCells, Inc., activities. Trounson was appointed seven days after he left the agency.

The item also contained a comment from scientist Jeanne Loring of Scripps that said that the Trounson Affair detracts from the value of CIRM’s good work.

Here is the text of Prieto’s comment, the essence of which is certain to be shared by many CIRM board members,
“I think Jeanne Loring is right: CIRM has been a remarkable driver of this research, and it would be a shame if the actions of Dr. Trounson and StemCells Inc. (What were they thinking?) obscures this.  I think it is grossly unfair to say that ‘none of this reflects well on the agency,’ when the agency had nothing to do with it.  Most of us on the board – and the staff, I think it’s safe to say – felt blindsided by this.  I was gratified to see Randy Mills’ prompt and appropriate response to this, and I expect we’ll hear more from him on the subject.  I think it’s a bit disingenuous of Michael Hiltzik (of the Los Angeles Times) to say that ‘so many members had to recuse themselves that only nine were left to vote,’ when the new voting procedures (that prohibited members from grant-receiving institutions from discussing or voting on those grants) were a direct response to the reform recommendations in the IOM report, and were lauded by most at the time. I don’t think that included Mr. Hiltzik, who I believe has never had anything good to say about the agency or its work. I’m curious whether that will change as stem cell treatments we’ve funded actually start moving into clinical trials, but I won’t hold my breath.”
The California Stem Cell Report has great respect for Prieto and the other 28 members of the agency’s board and its staff.

However, there is no escaping the impact of the news and the resultant commentary, which will be around virtually forever, embedded in every Internet search that is performed about the stem cell agency. Today, for example, a Google search on the term “California stem cell agency” turned up eight hits on the first page of search returns. Five dealt with the Trounson Affair.

Moreover, conflict of interest concerns were aired very early on in CIRM’s history, dating back to 2004, before the ballot proposal creating the agency was even approved by voters. Revolving door issues also came up years ago, including in 2007 when Richard Murphy, a former member of the board, was hired as interim president at a salary of $300,000 for six months work. The Little Hoover Commission mentioned the issue briefly in its 88-page report in 2009.

Additionally, given that financing of the agency was limited to 10 years, revolving door problems were always likely to surface. It was an issue that could have been dealt with by the board years ago, avoiding the situation with Trounson today. Revolving door restrictions could have and should have been part of his conditions of employment.

The IOM’s recommendations for dealing with conflict-of-interest problems at the agency were far-reaching. The steps taken by the agency do little to comply with the IOM recommendations.  The strange case of having only nine out of 29 members eligible to vote is not all that uncommon. Indeed, the agency has worked hard to keep its 12 patient advocate members in attendance at board meetings because sometimes they are the only ones who can vote without legal conflicts-of-interest.

The situation with Trounson is certainly unpleasant.  Whether board members think the reaction is unfair is not the main point. It is up to them to take action to respond to those public concerns and ensure that the agency’s integrity is reinforced and that its work is not impugned by conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

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