Recipient of $22 million from stem cell agency named to its board

Stem cell researcher and professor Larry Goldstein. (Photo: Screen capture, UCTV).

Larry Goldstein, a well-known stem cell researcher at the University of California, San Diego who has received nearly $22 million in awards from the California stem cell agency, today was named to its governing board.

It was the first time in the history of the 16-year-old agency that a scientist who has received agency awards has been appointed to the board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the stem cell agency is officially known.

Goldstein’s appointment raises once again questions involving conflicts of interest at the agency. Since its inception, CIRM has awarded $2.7 billion to California researchers and enterprises, including UC San Diego. Eight out of every ten dollars has gone to institutions with links to past or present CIRM board members, according to an analysis by the California Stem Cell Report. 

Conflict of interest issues have dogged the agency since before voters created it in 2004. In a report in 2012 commissioned at a cost of $700,000 by CIRM itself, the prestigious Institute of Medicine (IOM) said,

“Far too many board members represent organizations that receive CIRM funding or benefit from that funding. These competing personal and professional interests compromise the perceived independence of (the CIRM governing board), introduce potential bias into the board’s decision making, and threaten to undermine confidence in the board.”

The IOM said the composition of the board, which is called the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee (ICOC) makes it neither “independent” nor capable of  “oversight.”

In response to a question, Kevin McCormack, senior director of CIRM communications, said,

“Larry is no longer involved in any active CIRM awards and has stepped away from his research work, with the exception of one project for which he does not intend to seek CIRM funds.

“He brings a wealth of knowledge to the board and a different perspective as a leading stem cell scientist and former CIRM-funded researcher. As for conflicts, he is precluded from voting on any applications and cannot even participate in the discussion of applications submitted by UCSD.”

While members of the CIRM board cannot vote on specific applications involving their institutions, they set the rules for the grant competition and approve “concept plans” for new grant rounds. Those rounds can and do benefit board members’ institutions. UC San Diego has received $232 million in total funding from the agency, making the campus the third-largest recipient.
CIRM provided $43 million to help create the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine in La Jolla, which involved UC San Diego and other research institutions, all of which have been represented on the CIRM board.  Goldstein was the founding scientific director of the consortium.
Goldstein, as a member of the CIRM board, is barred from applying for additional funding, CIRM said in response to a question.
Queried by email, Aaron Levine, a member of the IOM panel that studied the stem cell agency and an expert in biomedical research policy at Georgia Tech, said,

“Larry Goldstein is, in many ways, an inspired choice for the CIRM Board. He is a well-regarded stem cell scientist and former CIRM grantee with administrative experience and demonstrated interest in public policy. On the other hand, CIRM has, at the very least, a perception problem with conflicts-of-interest and appointing a former grantee to the Board so soon after the passage of Proposition 14 seems to suggest that this challenge will persist.”

“More broadly, conflict of interest concerns reflect the structure of the CIRM Board dating back to Proposition 71 in 2004 and the broader challenge facing many organizations of recruiting interested, qualified, and independent board members. CIRM has taken a number of steps to help address conflicts of interest since the IOM report was published many years ago, but I would have liked to see the board structure adjusted as part of Proposition 14 to introduce more independence into the oversight structure and further address these concerns.”

Proposition 71 is the ballot initiative that created CIRM in 2004 with $3 billion in state bonds. When the money ran out last year, voters approved Proposition 14, which saved the agency with $5.5 billion more. The total cost of the agency by the time the money runs out again is estimated to be $12  billion because of the interest expense of the bonds.
Proposition 14 also expanded the board from 29 to 35 members, creating an increased likelihood of conflicts of interest.
A longtime observer of the agency and supporter of stem cell research, who must remain anonymous, was “quite distressed” by the Goldstein appointment. “Don’t they have any sense of what’s appropriate,” the person said. “He has benefitted in so many ways and is so intertwined with Bob Klein.”
Klein is the Palo Alto developer who crafted Proposition 14 and 71 and contributed millions to the ballot campaigns. Goldstein serves as co-chair of the scientific advisory board of Klein’s stem cell advocacy group, Americans for Cures.
In its news release, CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas said,

“I have known Larry for many years and have nothing but the highest regard for him as a scientist, a leader, and a great champion of stem cell research. He is also an innovative thinker and that will be invaluable to us as we move into a second chapter in the life of CIRM.”

Reports filed by Goldstein on his research can be found on this CIRM web page and by clicking on the description of each award. He was appointed by UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla and replaces David Brenner, dean of the UC San Diego Medical School, who has served two terms on the CIRM board.

Editor’s Note: David Jensen is a retired newsman who has followed the affairs of the $3 billion California stem cell agency since 2005 via his blog, the California Stem Cell Report, where this story first appeared. He has published more than 4,000 items on California stem cell matters.

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