Report Alleges Financial Conflicts of Interest for Members of ICOC
The Center for Genetics and Society on Wednesday released a report saying that seven of the 29 members of the Independent Citizens' Oversight Committee for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the stem cell agency created by Proposition 71, have "significant business connections with companies connected with stem cell research," the San Diego Union-Tribune reports. CGS said the ICOC members should not have any financial ties to the stem cell research industry to avoid potential conflicts of interest (Somers, San Diego Union-Tribune, 4/7).
David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology, was among the seven ICOC members cited in the report. CGS said Baltimore serves on the board of Amgen, a California biotechnology company that has a strategic relationship with stem cell company ViaCell. The report said Baltimore has 5,243 shares of Amgen stock worth $304,356 and about 129,000 additional stock options. CGS also said Baltimore has at least $10,000 invested in Teva Pharmaceuticals, which is allied with stem cell company Gamida-Cell.
Baltimore could not be reached for comment. However, Amgen spokesperson Mary Klem said, "[F]rom our perspective, we don't see any conflict of interest." She added that Amgen does "perform extensive pre-clinical research using adult stem cells," but the company does not plan to apply for any of the $3 billion in research money to be awarded by CIRM.
CGS also said that ICOC Vice Chair Edward Penhoet has more than $1 million in stock in companies that research stem cells or have ties to stem cell companies. Penhoet has denied that finding.
CGS Program Director Jesse Reynolds said ICOC needs to "have strong and enforceable conflict-of-interest policies." The lack of such rules "can lead to bad policy," he said (Johnson, San Jose Mercury News, 4/7).
CGS Associate Executive Director Marcy Darnovsky said, "The proposed policy says that whenever there is a conflict, or the potential for one, the committee member is to recuse himself or herself. Our concern is that there really is no way of ensuring that takes place. It's another one of these 'trust us to do the right thing' situations."
Penhoet said CGS "wants to remove any possibility for the occasion of conflict and not just the conflict itself, which is unreasonable. It could disqualify people who are competent to make wise decisions about how this is all done."
Noting that he and other ICOC members are working without compensation, Penhoet added, "I'm spending an enormous amount of time and effort purely in the public interest. I'm not willing to sacrifice the entire rest of my life, which has been in the biotech world, because it doesn't make any sense" (San Diego Union-Tribune, 4/7).
CIRM spokesperson Julie Buckner said, "What [CGS is] suggesting is very tenuous, indirect links between board members and these companies." She said that CGS, which opposed Proposition 71, could be viewed as "standing in the way of the voters' will."
Buckner added that most of the information in the CGS report already was made public in ICOC financial disclosure documents and that it was necessary for ICOC members to come from the biotech industry so that they would be knowledgeable on stem cell research.
CGS on Thursday planned to hold a meeting in Los Angeles to discuss adopting policies to bar its members from making decisions that could financially benefit themselves or associates.
Sens. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) and George Runner (R-Lancaster) have proposed a constitutional amendment that would require ICOC members to divest themselves of all financial ties to stem cell companies (San Jose Mercury News, 4/7).
The conflict-of-interest policy for members of the Grants Review Working Group, which would "effectively allo[w] the grant reviewers to police themselves," does not "pass the good-government smell test," a Fresno Bee editorial states.
The policy would instruct members to "recuse themselves from considering any grant decisions with which they have a conflict," according to the editorial. The editorial adds, "No disclosure forms will be required," and therefore "the institute's staff will have no ready mechanism for ensuring that reviewers are acting ethically. Nor will the public."
The editorial states that ICOC members "face a big decision" on Thursday, and their choice "could determine whether this oversight committee retains any shred of credibility or becomes the target of a burgeoning legislative effort to amend Proposition 71" (Fresno Bee, 4/7).