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Accountability part of stem-cell mix

by Tim SimmersOakland Tribune
November 4th, 2004

Foes who support research worry about industry 'giveaway'

Biotechnology leaders and academics embraced Tuesday's passage of the
$3 billion bond measure to fund stem-cell research, stressing that it will create new collaborations to hasten treatments for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other diseases.

But Proposition 71 is still fueling urgent calls for public accountability of the $300 million in annual stem-cell spendng over the next 10 years.

"We support stem-cell research but have concerns this measure is a giveaway to the stem-cell industry," said Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland. "The backers want Californians to hand over the money and then just trust them to do what's right. The stakes are too big for that."

Steven Burrill, life science merchant banker and venture capitalist, scoffed at the idea that the initiative is a bailout or welfare for the industry. Instead, he called it a "big day for patients and Californians."

Burrill said the majority of the money initially will go to research in the academic sector. He noted that the initiative could be a catalyst for similar measures in other states.

Indeed, collaborations between industry and academia are expected to create commercial products, thereby growing the industry and local biotechnology companies.

That's what irks initiative opponents. They question whether there really is a division between university and commercial scientists, saying they're all working in an intensely commercial atmosphere to make money.

The victory was fueled by more than $25 million in campaign contributions from rich Silicon Valley venture capitalists, billionaire executives and wealthy parents of sick children.

Some say it will boost California's economy by billions of dollars, creating jobs and turning the state into a hotbed for disease cures. But opponents maintain it will eventually cost $6 billion to pay the principal and interest payments.

Geron Corp. of Menlo Park, the company that helped create the field by spending $80 million of its own money on early research, sees the new funding as a way to put the technology in the clinics faster and speed up cures.

Tom Okarma, Geron chief executive and president, welcomes the funding, especially since the Bush administration limited federal stem-cell funding in 2001.

Geron is a year-and-a-half away from putting a spinal cord injury cell type in clinical trials. Okarma's company has moved ahead on the project because it received funding from the Christopher Reeve Foundation. He expects similar collaborative advances in the future as Geron is targeting treatments for Parkinson's disease, arthritis, heart disease and other ailments.

The collaboration could come from academic places like Stanford University.

Philip Pizzo, dean of Stanford University School of Medicine, said the new funds will enable universities to recruit leading investigative scientists, start new research efforts and develop facilities to carry out the programs.

Stanford already has some of the world's leading stem cell researchers, and "they will certainly apply for funding for their work," Pizzo said.

Irv Weissman, director of the Institute for Cancer and Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at Stanford, said any royalties from patents and discoveries made at Stanford from bond grants will go to the university and the state.

"The state gets its share to help it pay for the bond," he said.

Over the next 40 days, an oversight committee will be formed that will choose medical and industry experts to serve on two panels that will eventually review grant applications.

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