Thursday, October 08, 2020

Tangling Over $5.5 Billion Stem Cell Measure: CIRM Board Member vs. its Former Chairman

Robert Klein is on the left, Jeff Sheehy on right at CIRM
directors meeting. Art Torres, vice chair of the board is in
the middle. CSCR photo

The two men once worked together over the last 16 years to spend $3 billion in state funds on stem cell research in California. This week, however, they were very publicly on opposite sides of a ballot initiative to spend $5.5 billion more. 

The initiative is Proposition 14, which would require the state to borrow the additional billions. The measure would also substantially expand the scope of the state stem cell agency, known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).  

Both men, Robert Klein and Jeff Sheehy, served on the CIRM board, regularly approving hundreds of millions of dollars in research awards annually. Klein is a Palo Alto real estate developer and was the first chairman of the agency. He directed the writing of Proposition 14 and now heads the campaign.  He left his post as chairman in 2011.

Sheehy continues to serve on the CIRM board and has since 2004. He is a patient advocate member of the board, its former Science Subcommittee chair and a nationally recognized HIV/AIDs advocate. Sheehy was the lone dissenting vote when the CIRM board endorsed Proposition 14 in June, although he says the agency has done "tremendous" work.

They came together "remotely" when they participated Oct. 5 in a public radio show, KQED's Forum with Michael Krasny, that is heard throughout California on public radio stations. 

Klein and Sheehy bristled at times during the 38-minute broadcast. Klein said figures presented by Sheehy were "completely false." Sheehy said Klein's financing mechanism in Proposition 14 was "very dodgy" and "ridiculous." 

In the initial years of financing, Sheehy said, "It's like getting a credit card and then getting another credit card to carry the interest (from the first credit card)."

Longstanding issues were also raised concerning conflicts of interest on the CIRM board and other deficiencies identified in an evaluation of CIRM by the prestigious Institute of Medicine (IOM). The 2012 study was commissioned by CIRM itself at a cost of $700,000. Both Klein and Sheehy supported funding the study as a way to secure what they thought would be a gold standard endorsement of the agency. 

Klein's initiative does little to deal with the issues raised by the study, which said "inherent conflicts of interest" exist on the board. The report also recommended that the 29-member board be overhauled completely and not expanded.  Proposition 14 would increase the board size to 35, however, increasing conflicts of interest. The measure also does not address the management and governance problems cited by the study.

An analysis last month by the California Stem Cell Report showed that 79 percent of the awards approved by the CIRM board went to institutions that had links to board members even though the "institutional" members are not permitted to vote on awards to their institutions. Conflicts of interest have been so pervasive at times that only six or seven members were allowed to vote on awards. 

Sheehy and Klein also talked briefly about state spending priorities in the Covid year and the state's ongoing affordable housing, education and homeless problems. Overall, the KQED program provided only a tiny peek at the issues involved in Proposition 14. 

Klein's position can be fully explored on his campaign's web site. Over the last 12 months, Sheehy has aired his position at CIRM board meetings and in submissions to the California Stem Cell Report. Here is what Sheehy wrote regarding his no vote on endorsement of the ballot measure.

A detailed look at the findings of the IOM report and the current status of CIRM's response is contained in the new book "California's Great Stem Cell Experiment: An Inside Look at a $3 Billion Search for Cures."  The book was written by the publisher of this blog and grew out of more than 15 years of close observation of the stem cell agency. 

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