Affordability another serious issue
Despite a squeaky-clean public image derived from its noble aim of curing the cureless, embryonic stem cell research is plagued by the same problems of infighting, poor oversight, conflicts of interest as other areas of research. And in the case of the world´s largest institute for stem cell research, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), they may be worse. In fact, the leading journal Nature has used its lead editorial to urge the CIRM to improve its governance. With US$3 billion to spend, the CIRM has a sticky problem: "the board that distributes its funding is stacked with representatives that benefit most from those disbursements."
And then there is the issue of affordability. Some California legislators complain that products funded by the CIRM may be too expensive for the taxpayers who are funding the CIRM. "For the agency to succeed," says Nature, "patient advocates and other public representatives must fight the tendency of the academic institutions on the board to hoard dollars."
In the near future, more dollars will be spent on shiny new buildings rather cures. This week the CIRM approved $271 million in construction grants for new laboratories in 12 institutions. This will be topped up with other grants and donations, bring the total of spending on new laboratories to $832 million. "California will be a landmark, it will be the epicenter of the new medicine," says the CIRM´s president, Alan Trounson. (However, as the New York Times points out, one of the political rationales for the building program will soon vanish: the Bush Administration´s stubborn restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. All three major presidential candidates have said that they will turn on the tap again.)
The CIRM is not the only stem cell group with conflicts of interest. Nearly half of the voting members of a government advisory panel for blood stem cell transplantation have financial ties to cord blood-banks, pharmaceutical companies and the transplantation industry, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
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