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California's stem cell research institute is one of...

May 26, 2005

California's stem cell research institute is one of those rare but exciting ideas that offer the chance to do well (for the state's economy) while also doing good (for people with serious illnesses). The ballot initiative that created it, however, was flawed, and the institute's leaders should not stand in the way of repairs.

A bill now before the Legislature seeks to guarantee that the newly created California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, which will distribute $3 billion in taxpayer money over the next decade, will be more transparent and accountable to the public. The bill would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November to let citizens decide about the stricter requirements.

In speaking out against the amendment, the leaders of the institution are engaging in inexcusable rhetoric. If enacted, said the institute's acting chief, the amendment would "cripple our efforts." A board member said it would lead to "extra suffering and death."

You'd think there were no bright scientists willing to compete for part of $3 billion in research funds under a system of open-meeting and conflict-of-interest standards. Those are the main issues addressed in SCA 13, sponsored by Sens. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) and George Runner (R-Lancaster). The measure also would ensure that treatments are provided to the poor at lower prices and that the state shares in royalties.

It's understandable that companies and scientists would be unwilling in an open forum to discuss their or others' work related to possible contracts or disclose their patent applications. But SCA 13 makes broad allowances for such discussions to be private. Moreover, Ortiz and Runner have agreed to drop a disturbing proposal to place a three-year moratorium on egg donations for research, exactly the kind of interference that has stymied stem cell research at the federal level.

Board President Robert Klein II, the driving force behind the stem cell initiative, has said he designed the institute to be free of legislative controls. If he wanted things to stay that way, he should have moved quickly to make certain that the institute would follow ethical and public-meeting standards. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, Klein should welcome the constitutional amendment because it could insulate the institute from lawsuits alleging that the lack of public oversight had rendered the stem cell bonds unconstitutional.

After all, this isn't Klein's or his board's $3 billion -- it's the public's. And public oversight is one of the best ways to guard against public money going astray.

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