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Editorial: Stem cell board must find way to hold open meetings

Oakland Tribune
December 21st, 2004

ROBERT N. Klein, the millionaire Portola Valley real estate developer, was sworn in Friday to lead California's $3 billion venture into stem cell research.

Klein, 59, was the main promoter of Proposition 71 on the Nov. 2 ballot and was selected to head the new California Institute for Regenerative Medicine by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrats Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and state Controller Steve Westly.

He was sworn in at the first meeting of a 29-member board created by Proposition 71 to direct the new institute's activities. The state is expected to raise up to $350 million a year in bonds to finance the search for cures for major illnesses using stem cells for the next decade, including the funding of research grants and construction of facilities.

Ed Penhoet, co-founder of Emeryville's Chiron Corp., was chosen from three nominees to serve as vice chairman of the institute's board, known as the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee.

The first meeting originally had a longer agenda but it was cut back to selecting new leaders after concerns were raised about violating the state's open-government rules. The meeting still went on for more than two hours. The committee will meet again in January to tackle a full slate of issues.

We hope by that time it will have a better idea how to conduct its meetings in the open.

The institute was created by Proposition 71 to pursue stem cell research using early-stage human embryos that are ineligible for federal grants under rules adopted by the Bush administration. The research is opposed by many religious organizations.

But other critics, many of whom support California's approach to research, say there are many other problems with the Proposition 71 game plan, including intellectual-property rights and ethical safeguards. And not everyone joined in Friday's frequent ovations at the University of San Francisco. Charles Halpern, a Berkeley public-interest lawyer, wanted the board to appoint only interim leadership until actual research got under way.

Jesse Reynolds of the pro-choice Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, which opposed Proposition 71, called on the board to adopt "specific provisions for openness" to guide the new institute after its initial blunder in advertising the first meeting.

The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a nonprofit in Los Angeles, issued a news release charging that the new board was "rife with conflicts of interest."

But those charges came as no surprise, because it was know that Klein was a major donor to Bustamante and Westly. He was not listed as a backer for the governor. Klein has made no secret of his financial backing for Prop. 71.

He says his motivation is simple: His son, Jordan, has been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, one of the many diseases that might be cured if the research is successful. The teenager was at his father's side after the meeting.

Now that the first meeting is behind us, we hope that the committee can get started with its main job of supporting research, allocating funds and finding cures for many diseases that afflict us.

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