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  • demetergreen demetergreen Jan 31, 2013 8:34 AM Flag

    OT Stem cell board votes to overhaul grants

    The governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine - the state's stem cell funding agency - has voted to overhaul how it doles out money for scientific grants, a decision meant to silence critics who have pointed out potential conflicts of interest.
    If the final proposal is adopted by the board in March, 13 board members who are associated with institutions that are eligible for state funding will no longer be able to vote on grants. That's almost half of the 29-member board.
    Those 13 board members - many of whom are scientists with University of California campuses - will be able to participate in discussions about which grants should be funded.
    But removing them from the final vote will be a major step toward dispelling concerns of conflicts of interest that have dogged the agency in recent years, said Jonathan Thomas, chairman of the governing board.
    "We needed to do this. It was a time to make changes," Thomas said. "It's my earnest hope that having gotten past these issues that have nagged us, that the focus will turn to where it should be, which is the groundbreaking work we fund."
    Most governing board members are appointed by elected state officials, including the governor, lieutenant governor and others. The members are picked to represent patient advocacy groups, research institutions and the biotech industry.
    The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, based in San Francisco, was established by state voters eight years ago to fund stem cell research when federal money wasn't available.
    The agency has handed out more than half of the $3 billion bond approved by voters.
    Last month, a review by an independent Institute of Medicine committee found that the agency was in significant need of restructuring to address concerns about potential conflicts of interest and mismanagement.
    The review did not find any specific examples of conflict or management problems. But the committee suggested that a perception of these problems could be damaging to the agency's long-term funding goals.
    In addition to removing 13 board members from the grant voting process, the proposal approved last week included handing more internal authority to the agency's president - a move that would take daily management duties away from the governing board.
    The proposal also calls for creating an independent scientific review committee and changing the way appeals to grant proposal rejections are handled.
    Previously, scientists whose grants were rejected could petition the governing board to reconsider, but those appeals will now be handled by agency staff members who will make recommendations to the board.
    Fremont resident Don Reed - a longtime supporter of the agency who has attended almost every board meeting as a representative of patient and consumer interests - said he was relieved that patient advocates would still have a vote and a voice in the grant approval process.
    There had been some discussion of removing patient advocates from voting because they, too, have potential conflicts of interest.
    Reed said he hopes the changes, assuming they're formally adopted in March, will appease critics.
    "I was in favor of rejecting the (Institute of Medicine) review out of hand," Reed said.
    "I reject wholeheartedly that there was ever any real conflict of interest on the board. But making the changes is valuable if it removes even an appearance of conflict of interest."

 
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