Lawsuits Stall California's Stem Cell Initiative

Last year, California voters approved a ballot measure to spend $3 billion on stem cell research. One year later, Sarah Varney of member station KQED reports that lawsuits are preventing the state from distributing those funds to scientists.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, our series on two New York lawyers who represent detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison. In yesterday's story, the lawyers traveled to Yemen to meet their clients' families, and attorney Sarah Havens told a mother that her son daydreams about home-cooked meals.

Mr. SARAH HAVENS (Attorney): I told her all of his favorite dishes that she makes, that he would love to eat when he gets back. And so she told me she would send me instructions so maybe I could make them myself next time I'm in Guantanamo.

CHADWICK: Radio Diaries from lawyers Sarah Havens and Doug Cox coming up.

First, this. A year ago, California voters approved a ballot measure to spend $3 billion on stem cell research. The state's scientific undertaking is on a par with that of some other nations. But a year later, lawsuits have ensnared the state's stem cell agency, preventing it from distributing research funds to scientists. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Sarah Varney reports.

SARAH VARNEY reporting:

In his vision, the author of California's stem cell initiative, Robert Klein, sees the next chapter in the state's history. It looks like this: a flourishing of scientific breakthroughs, cures to diabetes and Parkinson's disease, and scientists freely exchanging new insights.

Mr. ROBERT KLEIN (Author of Stem Cell Initiative): It reminds me, as I've said many times before, of the late Renaissance period that started the whole scientific empirical revolution in Europe that led to the Royal Academy of London and the Royal Academy of Paris, all cities, not nations, but cities that led the way.

VARNEY: There are signs that Renaissance is beginning in San Francisco, where the state agency is headquartered. A dozen countries sent scientists and physicians here to help define the institute's research priorities. And nearby universities are already recruiting and training the next generation of stem cell biologists. But in California where citizens tend to make laws at the ballot box and the courthouse, the lawyers are busier than the scientists these days. That's because the state is fighting off two lawsuits that claim the agency is unconstitutional. David Llewellyn is an attorney for the California Family Bioethics Council, a pro-life group suing the state. Llewellyn says the stem cell agency's governing board is made up of members from research institutions, universities and biomedical companies who have a financial interest in the grants they'll be awarding.

Mr. DAVID LLEWELLYN (Attorney): No one wants this to be run by people who have self-interest or their own ideas of the public interest because you're not going to get good public policy and good spending.

VARNEY: The stem cell agency did adopt a conflict-of-interest policy earlier this year that forbids members of the governing board from directly receiving state-funded grants, and they must recuse themselves in cases where there is a conflict of interest. But Llewellyn argues that board members still maintain an insider status. The agency's critics also contend the institute is violating the state's open meeting laws by evaluating grant proposals behind closed doors. But Zach Hall, president of the stem cell agency and a neurobiologist, says confidential peer review is a long-standing scientific tradition. Hall says scientists won't submit their best and daring ideas if they're shot down in public.

Mr. ZACH HALL (President, Stem Cell Agency): There's been much anxiety that backroom deals are going to be cut and that, you know, there'll be horse trading and all the rest. And so it's been a little baffling and surprising for those of us who are part of the scientific culture, saying, `Wait, you don't understand. This works fantastically well.'

VARNEY: The Stem Cell Institute is also facing disagreements over who will own the rights to stem cell breakthroughs funded with public dollars and how or if to split royalties among researchers, private companies and the state. A report commissioned by the state Legislature recommended the institute follow the model used by research universities that receive federal funds. Those universities own the rights to their discoveries and the federal government never receives royalties. But Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, says watchdogs are skeptical the new agency will be a giveaway to pharmaceutical companies.

Mr. BOB STERN (President, Center for Governmental Studies): People want to make sure that nobody's going to get rich off this and that the government will get its money's worth.

VARNEY: Stern says starting a new state agency from scratch is a herculean task, but he suspects most of the disagreements will be worked out. And if they aren't...

Mr. STERN: If not, it's going to be one of the colossal experiments that failed in California history.

VARNEY: Until the lawsuits against the stem cell agency are resolved, the state can't issue bonds to begin funding the research. But the state treasurer has come up with a novel approach to move forward anyway. He is looking for philanthropic organizations and individuals to buy $50 million worth of bond anticipation notes. They are a risky investment. If the state loses in court, those investors would not be repaid. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney in San Francisco.

CHADWICK: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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