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Editorial: A miracle cure for stem cell conflicts

Sacramento Bee
July 10th, 2005

As many readers know, leaders of California's stem cell research institute have steadfastly refused to disclose the stock holdings and consulting relationships of scientists who will be recommending billions in research grants over the next decade.

The official explanation? Institute Chairman Robert Klein II and interim president Zach Hall claim that top scientists will refuse to "volunteer" for the institute's grant review panel (which pays $300 a day) if they are forced to publicly disclose their potential conflicts.

This page has spent weeks examining this claim. Frankly, it is a bunch of malarkey.
Throughout the scientific world, stem cell researchers are increasingly disclosing their corporate research relationships and stock holdings.

Some must do so if they want to serve as faculty on Continuing Medical Education courses sponsored by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and other medical schools.

Others must publicly disclose conflicts when their research is published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association and other prestigious publications.

Consider the recent meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, held in San Francisco. Several of the world's top scientists disclosed their corporate ties there as part of the continuing education program.

Ian Wilmut, the Scottish scientist who became famous for cloning Dolly the sheep, disclosed in the program booklet that he is a stockholder in the Geron Corp., which holds several important stem cell patents.

Roger Pedersen, a U.S. scientist who jumped to Great Britain in 2001 to conduct research, disclosed that he consults for Stemnion Inc. James Thomson, another giant in this field, let the world know that he has stock in Cellular Dynamics International, a company he recently founded.

In fact, anyone with the Google search engine can learn about the economic ties of some - but not all - of the scientists appointed to the grants review committee of California's stem cell institute.

Let's examine the situations of Drs. Andrew Feinberg and Jeffrey Rothstein, two of 15 researchers appointed to the committee. Both work for Johns Hopkins, which owns stock in Geron and has a licensing agreement with the California company. According to an article in Scientific American this month, Geron "is expected to be one of the main beneficiaries of a new California fund for stem cell research." That means that Feinberg's and Rothstein's employer could benefit from any grants awarded to Geron.

Then consider Dr. George Daley, a stem cell expert who works at Boston's Children's Hospital. Daley will be serving as an ad hoc grant reviewer for the institute. Daley, in the New England Journal of Medicine, disclosed that he serves on the board of the directors of ViaCell, a company that investigates cord-blood stem cells. He also consults for MPM Capital, a venture capital company that invests in ViaCell and other biomedical companies.

These and similar conflicts shouldn't be surprising, considering the close relationship of biomedical corporations and leading research universities. The one thing they should be, however, is fully disclosed.

When pressed on this point, Klein and Hall say the grants reviewers are just advisers, and that all final grant decisions will be made by the institute's 29-member oversight board. This argument is also misleading and Susan Fogel, an institute watchdog, made a shambles of it at a recent meeting of the institute's legislative subcommittee.

Fogel noted the working group reviewers will pore over hundreds of grant proposals, eliminate some from contention and then make recommendations on the others. This culling of proposals turns the grant reviewers into decision makers. Their decisions will influence how billions of dollars will be spent.

"I don't understand why the disclosure forms of the working groups are not available to the public," said Fogel, who heads a group called the Pro-Choice Alliance for Responsible Research. "The public needs to know what kinds of conflicts or potential conflicts exist (among) people making decisions."

Well said. The question is whether the institute's oversight board, which meets Tuesday in Irvine, cares much about what the public needs. The board has yet to openly discuss these concerns. Instead, it has approved conflict-of-interest policies designed largely to serve scientists and the biomedical industry, which has lobbied against tougher standards. Tuesday's meeting will tell us if anyone on the oversight board holds a different allegiance.

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