Who should oversee stem cell research funding?

July 16, 2008 6:58:29 PM PDT
It's your money -- $3 billion earmarked for stem cell research with the passage of Proposition 71 four years ago. Now there's a new battle brewing concerning oversight of that money.

Sacramento lawmakers already have their hands full, working on the state budget. But they're having little difficulty putting handcuffs on a $3 billion pot of money they'd like to control.

The bill that appears to be sailing through the state senate will give them a big say in stem cell research.

The bill has been making its way through legislative committees, winning approval by wide margins.

Critics say this is just the first step in trying to tighten the reins on the state's stem cell agency, known as CIRM.

CIRM is based in San Francisco across from AT&T Park. Its Citizens Oversight Committee, which approves research grants, has been accused of having conflicts of interest.

"Fourteen of them or so represent the very institutions that get most of the money," said consumer watchdog John Simpson.

The co-sponsor of the bill, State Senator Sheila Kuehl from Southern California, says CIRM's oversight committee needs oversight.

"It's not a lack of trust. It's really more needing to embed in the law the oversight simply to make sure the promises that were made to the voters are kept," said Kuehl.

Proposition 71 created an agency that has a broad mission to fund research that might have difficulty getting money from other sources, due to the controversy over stem cells.

"We have to keep the faith of this initiative that the voters gave this expertise to deliver to patients," said Citizens' Oversight Committee Chairman Robert Klein.

Roman Reed of Fremont is a potential beneficiary of stem cell research. He is a quadriplegic who sustained a spinal injury playing football.

He's worried that giving lawmakers more say over CIRM might re-focus grants away from less prevalent diseases.

"Now we're going to take away the incentive for private companies to go after these diseases with this wrong legislation," said Reed.

The pending legislation calls for an investigation into CIRM's grant making ethics and guarantees that the state's poor will have access to successful therapies.

"The problem is they're the only ones that can change the regulations, so there's no legislative oversight, there's no official oversight, but it's a use of $3 billion of state money," said Kuehl.

The state's Stem Cell Institute has gone on record, opposing the senate bill. The controversy could be headed to the governor's desk with one side hoping for his signature -- and the other, hoping for a veto.


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