Report: Calif. Stem Cell Agency Needs Overhaul
LOS ANGELES - California has transformed into a major player in stem cell research, but the taxpayer-funded institute responsible has "significant deficiencies" in how research dollars are distributed, experts said Thursday.
A report by the Institute of Medicine found too many members on the board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine represented schools that won funding and recommended a restructuring to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest.
California voters in 2004 approved Proposition 71, a state ballot initiative that created CIRM, at a time when there were federal restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research and such work was opposed by some on religious and moral grounds because embryos have to be destroyed to harvest the cells.
The agency was given broad power to distribute $3 billion in bond proceeds to promising research. So far, it has distributed more than $1 billion to some five dozen universities that went mostly toward investments in new buildings and basic research.
The team of 13 experts that reviewed the stem-cell agency’s operations did not judge the merits of individual studies because that was outside the scope of the report and it would have been too time-consuming and costly. But they raised serious questions about how grants were allotted.
The approval process "has some significant deficiencies which need to be improved upon in order to improve CIRM’s credibility and transparency," said Harold Shapiro, an emeritus professor at Princeton University who chaired the report.
In a few short years, CIRM got off the ground and funneled research money with an eye toward stem cell therapies, turning the state into "an international hub of research and development in stem cell biology," the report said.
While the panel did not find any specific cases of conflict, it noted that the potential exists because of how the board is made up.
CIRM is composed of 29 members, mostly from academia. They have the dual role of providing oversight and day-to-day management. While the structure may have worked when CIRM was first launched and shielded it from political meddling, change is needed going forward, experts said.