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State's stem cell board opposes proposal for increased oversight

by Carl T. HallSan Francisco Chronicle
June 7th, 2005

Sacramento -- Directors of the California Proposition 71 stem cell program met with state lawmakers Monday in hopes of scuttling a proposal to put stem cells back in front of the California electorate as soon as November -- legislation that some fear could kill the $3 billion research initiative.

State Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, and Sen. George Runner, R- Lancaster, have offered an amendment to the state Constitution that would change the Prop. 71 ground rules in order to increase public oversight and ensure that state-financed stem cell treatments be "affordable and accessible."

"There are legitimate concerns," said Ortiz, who was an early proponent of state-financed stem cell research.

If both chambers of the Legislature pass the measure by two-thirds margins before July, it could qualify for a special statewide ballot expected in November.

Ortiz was the star witness at a Monday morning meeting of the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine -- convened in Sacramento to give committee members the afternoon to lobby individual lawmakers at the state Capitol.

Supporters of the stem cell program insist no fixes are needed, however, because policy-makers are moving on their own to adopt the appropriate guidelines. Moreover, supporters say the uncertainties of the ballot process effectively block the bond sales needed to finance the research.

The program already faces a money crunch, but accepted a $5 million gift Monday from Dolby Laboratories founder Ray Dolby and his wife, Dagmar Dolby, which is expected to allow the hiring of staff that's needed to administer the first round of grants this fall.

The members of the stem cell institute's Independent Citizens Oversight Committee listened politely as Ortiz defended her efforts and promised to work with the stem cell board to draft improved language. The policy-making board even created a task force to work more closely with Sacramento lawmakers.

But then the committee members took turns attacking the Ortiz-Runner proposal.

Nobel laureate David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology, said Ortiz showed a lack of confidence in the stem cell board's ability to set up a workable system on its own.

"It is distinctly discouraging, what's going on here," Baltimore told Ortiz, suggesting that someone with her political sympathies "would cheer on this group rather than tying us up."

David Kessler, dean of the UCSF medical school and a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, told Ortiz that there was no clear solution to the affordability problem.

"I share all your values," Kessler said. "How you do this, I think, is exceptionally, exceptionally hard."

Ortiz said she hasn't ruled out the possibility of withdrawing her proposal if the stem cell institute makes the right moves, and she repeatedly promised to make any changes that are needed to clear up worries about bond issues.



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