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Editorial: Legal delays may be a plus for state's stem-cell effort

San Jose Mercury News
June 1st, 2006

The delays in implementing California's ambitious stem-cell initiative -- primarily the result of litigation that borders on being nuisance suits -- have been immensely irritating to those wanting to push forward with basic research.

But the delay has had the side benefit of allowing the stem-cell agency to solidify its planning, structure and regulations. That in turn enhances the chances that when research dollars start flowing at the rate of nearly $300 million a year, the state will have a program in place that delivers on its ambitious promises.

Once rid of legal challenges to Proposition 71, hopefully by next spring, California can start to dole out in a single year more than the National Institutes of Health have granted for stem-cell research in this decade. So far, only a trickle of the promised $3 billion in bonds has flowed from the state to scientists.

The delays also give the state time to resolve its remaining legislative oversight issues. State Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, took a big step in that direction when she wisely agreed to withdraw a bill that would have required a public vote in November to change some of the Proposition 71 oversight language.

State voters made their feelings clear in 2004. They shouldn't be involved in working out the details of complex intellectual-property and conflict-of-interest rules. Nor should the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine be further sidetracked -- now or in the future -- by the prospect of mounting another election campaign.

The state agency should seize the opportunity to hammer out a compromise with Ortiz on the remaining oversight issues.

The thorniest problem concerns the working group of scientists who review grant applications and forward recommendations to the agency's governing board for final approval. Ortiz wants the working group to disclose to the public any financial conflicts of interest. NIH guidelines don't require that level of disclosure, and the CIRM maintains it won't be able to retain top-level scientists if they are forced to publicly disclose their holdings. But disclosing financial conflicts at all levels of grant review is necessary to maintain the integrity of the research and the use of public dollars.

California's stem-cell agency needs to do all it can to ensure there are no scandals like the one that emerged last January in South Korea, when announced major stem-cell breakthroughs were discovered to be fraudulent.

A year from today, Californians will know their stem-cell program is a success if funds are flowing to eager scientists, other states are hailing the state regulations as a model for the nation, and any criticism that results from issuing $300 million in grants is found to be merely sour grapes.

Hammering out a compromise on oversight issues now will greatly reduce the chances of an unnecessary, bigger fight in the years to come.

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