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Stem Cell Setbacks

January 24, 2005

If it wasn't bad enough that the Bush administration has restricted federally funded stem cell research to 22 previously developed lines, now it turns out that even those precious few lines may be contaminated with a non-human acid that renders them useless to scientists.

That finding by researchers at UC San Diego and La Jolla's Salk Institute shows why California's $3-billion stem cell research program -- approved by ballot measure last fall -- has to start delivering dollars to scientists. Its progress must not be hindered by interest groups that would like to prohibit it from issuing any grants unless discussions are conducted in public.

The board responsible for distributing California's stem cell funds began falling behind last month when its first meeting was scuttled after protesters claimed it was being held in violation of a state law requiring that all agenda items be disclosed 10 days in advance.

The controversy escalated last week when some of the 29 board members disclosed that they had financial ties with biomedical companies. The truth is that the people who understand stem cell research are likely to have worked for the industry.

Opponents are right about lack of transparency. The fine print in Proposition 71 lets subcommittees hold private meetings to devise ethical standards for research and to discuss patent and other intellectual property issues with biotech companies and researchers. That's foolish in the first instance but maybe unavoidable in the second.

Guidelines on ethical standards should not be written in private. They affect public health and should reflect public values, not just those of a few unelected board members. Fortunately, the board has not yet finalized its public accountability rules. It should ensure that all discussions about ethics occur in public.

Openness is fundamental to trustworthy government, and it is rare that we would admit an exception. An intellectual property meeting in this case is one.

Biotech companies have good reason not to discuss their new medical discoveries in public until they're safely patented. Even if these meetings stay private, there is still a measure of public accountability because subcommittee decisions have to be approved by the full board at public meetings before any money is disbursed.

Proposition 71 was a bold statement by voters. The board should open its ethics discussions, then get on with its work -- made all the more important by the perhaps fatal problems with federally approved stem cells.

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