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Stem Cell Research Ethics

May 09, 2005

Not to apologize for Los Angeles officials, who truly screwed up by giving the state an excuse to reject L.A. as the headquarters for a stem cell institute that will distribute $3 billion in taxpayer funds, but the location doesn't matter all that much anyway. Now that the competition is over and San Francisco has won, what's important to local biotech researchers is that the money -- to be handed out over the next decade for research on such devastating diseases as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's -- is distributed using a fair, open and democratic process.

Unfortunately, that may not happen. Proposition 71, the ballot measure that established the state's Institute for Regenerative Medicine, guarantees little public scrutiny.

L.A. lost its chance to host the institute, despite including such perks as access to a private jet, because city officials seem to have forgotten to read the stem cell agency's list of basic requirements, like having offices on no more than two floors.

Well, there's a good chance the fix was in anyway -- the agency's new San Francisco headquarters just happens to be near the home of the agency's chairman and major domo, Bay Area real estate magnate Robert Klein II.

Klein has huge clout over the decision-making process, and he's doing little to make it more transparent. The problem could be fixed with a pending bill by state Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) that would subject the stem cell agency to disclosure laws similar to those governing school boards and other taxpayer-funded enterprises.

Though Klein has not publicly campaigned against Ortiz's bill, he is raising doubts about it. He recently said that if scientists knew their every word was "on the record," they'd be reluctant to speak candidly about a colleague's research -- and that could stand in the way of proper decisions on allocating research money. Ortiz's bill recognizes this, though, and frees agency officials to enter closed session for a myriad of reasons, ranging from the general (openness might "compromise the agency's position") to the specific (disclosure might compromise a patient's privacy or undermine a company's patent).

Klein and his colleagues should incorporate the essence of Ortiz's public disclosure rules into their bylaws, whether or not the legislation reaches the governor's desk. He should also embrace the detailed set of stem cell research guidelines that the National Academy of Sciences just fast-tracked into print, six months ahead of schedule, in hope of influencing Klein's agency.

The guidelines -- which include a prohibition on letting embryos develop beyond two weeks -- fill the regulatory gulf that has existed ever since President Bush banned most federally funded stem cell research in 2002. He said nothing about the propriety of private or state-funded research.

Last year, opponents of Proposition 71 fretted that the initiative might let scientists ride roughshod through a new kind of ethics-free Wild West. Ortiz's bill and the academy's ethical guidelines could ensure that doesn't happen.

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