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Lab founded by fertility scientist pulls its request for stem cell grant

October 04, 2007|William Heisel | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles research lab founded by a controversial South Korean fertility scientist is withdrawing its application for millions in state funding for stem cell studies.

The CHA Regenerative Medicine Institute was given preliminary approval in March for $2.6 million in funding by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

The agency was reviewing the Los Angeles-based center's proposal before writing the check, said agency spokesman Dale Carlson.

The center had intended to use human embryonic stem cells to study the fatal neurological condition known as Lou Gehrig's disease. This week, though, the CHA Institute withdrew its application, without giving an explanation, Carlson said.

Jean Yi, the CHA institute's chief executive, said the institute backed out because of criticism that it was not a true nonprofit. The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights had complained that the research institute was tied too closely to a for-profit fertility center.

"CHA Regenerative Medicine Institute (CHARMI) more than adequately addressed the baseless criticism," Yi said in a written statement. "We think the process was needlessly politicized. . . . Nevertheless, we are withdrawing because the last thing we want to do is be the source of any impairment to [the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine's] current level of well-earned public support."

Kwang-Yul Cha was listed on the institute's 2005 articles of incorporation as its president, but his name has since been removed. His family continues to own fertility clinics and hospitals in South Korea, and Cha's medical group bought Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in 2004. He has since had his name removed from the hospital's corporate records.

The CHA Institute, Hollywood Presbyterian and Cha himself have made headlines throughout the year.

In February, the medical research journal Fertility & Sterility announced that it was reviewing whether an article published with Cha as the lead author had been plagiarized.

After Cha threatened to sue the journal and its editor, the journal's oversight board determined that, although the article had been published previously in a South Korean journal without Cha's name, Cha was not at fault. The board then officially retracted the article and banned Sook-Hwan Lee, a researcher and employee of Cha's who had submitted the article, from publishing in the journal for three years. In May, the journal's editor apologized to Cha in a letter.

That same month, The Times reported that the Medical Board of California was investigating the medical director of Cha's fertility clinic, Dr. Thomas Kim, an expert in egg freezing, for sexual misconduct and other possible violations of state law.

Kim's attorney admitted to The Times that Kim had a relationship with a patient while treating her for infertility. Initiating a relationship with a patient after treatment begins typically is cause for board discipline. Kim's attorney said at the time that because both Kim and the patient were medical doctors, no violation occurred.

The medical board has since dropped its investigation, said board spokeswoman Candis Cohen, citing a lack of evidence. Kim is no longer the medical director at the clinic.

In June, the Los Angeles city attorney filed a civil complaint against the hospital for allegedly dumping a homeless patient in downtown Los Angeles. The hospital has said that the ambulance firm that dropped paraplegic Gabino Olvera, 54, off violated hospital policy.

william.heisel@latimes.com

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