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California stem cell agency head takes stand on 'personal ethics'

California stem cell agency's new president takes a stand on 'personal ethics' amid continued controversy

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has continued in damage-control mode since the state agency’s former president, Alan Trounson, joined the board of directors at StemCells Inc. this month, just seven days after leaving the agency.

Newark-based StemCells has been awarded nearly $20 million in CIRM funding, as part of a long relationship that, in the wake of Trounson's departure, has raised concern about potential conflict of interest.

The agency's new president, C. Randal Mills, said he was taking a strong stand on personal ethics, signing an agreement not to accept a job with any company funded by CIRM for at least one year after leaving his position at the state agency.

"We take even the appearance of conflicts of interest very seriously," Mills said in a statement this month.

But a scientist whose grant proposal was turned down — even though it received a higher rating than the StemCells proposal  — called the relationship between the state agency and the company “interesting.” 

“In my opinion, Mr. Trounson and the CIRM staff were clearly antagonistic to us and strongly supportive of StemCells,” Lon S. Schneider, a scientist at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, told the California Stem Cell Report ,a blog that follows news related to the stem cell agency.

And Times columnist Michael Hiltzik pointed out that the agency has hired its own law firm to conduct the investigation, rather than a completely independent party.

“The unanswered question burning a hole through CIRM's credibility is whether StemCells Inc. got its money because its research was promising, or because it knew the right people,” Hiltzik wrote.

The stem cell agency has also voted to cut $5 million from a $70-million effort to create a series of statewide stem cell clinics, according to the California Stem Cell Report. And even though the board has 29 members, only eight could vote because of conflicts of interest among the others, according to the report.

“Following a thorough review it is my opinion that the $70-million price tag is not clearly justified in terms of the benefits it will deliver to the people of California,” Mills wrote in a memo to the agency's board.

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