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Let the science begin

April 27, 2006

NOW THAT A STATE JUDGE HAS RULED in no uncertain terms that California's stem cell institute, approved overwhelmingly in the 2004 election, is perfectly legal, voters might expect that the scientific research will finally begin. They would be mistaken.

With religious conservatives intent on delaying embryonic stem cell research as long as they can, the matter ultimately will be decided by the state Supreme Court. The best voters can hope for is that, whichever appeals route the plaintiffs use, the courts will expedite this case.

Opponents of Proposition 71 had argued that the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, the agency set up to distribute and oversee $3 billion for research, and its governing committee lacked the state oversight necessary for a public entity. It's true that the committee's rules of operation are different from those of other public boards, and Proposition 71 would have been stronger had it been written along more traditional lines. But there are several levels of state oversight involved -- more than enough to safeguard the public.

Even if research started tomorrow, any stem cell treatments are years away, which makes the legal delay that much more frustrating. The plaintiffs are intent on stopping such research no matter how strong the public oversight. But the lawsuit also has served a purpose, increasing public and legislative pressure on the institute to adopt policies that meet high standards for ethics and accountability. Its standards are now almost beyond reproach.

It may have taken more protest and rancor than it should have to get the governing committee to make its dealings transparent, ensure that any future treatments are accessible to the state's poor and provide the public with a fair share of profits made from medical discoveries. But in recent months, the agency has addressed these concerns. It also has adopted top-notch standards for research ethics and the protection of potential egg donors.

That's why another effort to rein in the stem cell agency's work, in the Legislature, should be rejected as well. Senate Bill 401 would put on the ballot a measure to set up various rigid and picayune regulations on the institute. The agency's board already has adopted key elements of these proposed regulations. But by carving the rules into stone now, the measure would take away any flexibility the board might need as this fledgling research unfolds.

The bill's author, state Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) has been one of those forces pushing the agency in the right direction, but her measure is at best premature. The stem cell committee could still stand to make some improvements, of course; for instance, it resists making financial conflict-of-interest statements public for the scientists who will review grant applications. But the agency is on the right track. It should be given the chance to work out its rules and begin its important research before the Legislature starts micromanaging every aspect of its work.

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