first_imgAlthough Mayor James Hahn fumbled badly in his efforts to get the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to set up shop in Los Angeles, his bungling could prove to be more a blessing than a curse. Seventeen cities fought over the chance to play host to the new bureaucracy that’s charged with doling out $3 billion for embryonic stem cell research. They dreamed of corporate fat cats and academic geniuses gathering in their midst, cutting huge deals and drawing worldwide acclaim as they triumphantly cure one malady after the next. The cities offered whatever they could to woo CIRM into town. San Francisco, the eventual winner, had to pony up no-rent waterfront offices, office furniture, access to conference facilities at the Giants’ baseball stadium, free hotel rooms and limousine service. But those dreams of hipness, glamour and being witness to the Next Big Thing may have all been for naught. Because for the roughly 50 employees who will man CIRM’s headquarters, the future may consist of little more than decorating those swank offices and making trips to the courthouse. There are currently two separate lawsuits aiming to block the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative — or Proposition 71, which voters approved in November after a campaign in which deep-pocketed proponents outspent the opposition 62-1. The lawsuits claim that CIRM is riddled with conflicts of interest, and that it’s unconstitutional because its oversight committee dispenses state money without the oversight of elected state officials. Whether or not these claims sway the judiciary remains to be seen, but as long as they exist, Wall Street won’t buy the $3 billion in bonds that CIRM needs for its biotech spending spree. While the litigation continues, CIRM’s operations are indefinitely on hold, and should either of the lawsuits succeed, the entire enterprise could be doomed. That prospect has supporters desperate to come up with cash to tide the organization over for a while. One suggestion is to hit up private sponsors, but that’s problematic. The reason embryonic stem cell researchers need public funding at all is that the technology has yet to yield any tangible results. Venture capitalists would rather put their money into research on adult stem cells, which have already produced actual cures. Consequently, state Treasurer Phil Angelides has proposed an alternative plan: floating $200 million in short-term, higher-interest bonds, albeit with the catch that, depending on what becomes of the lawsuits, lenders might never get paid back. But it’s hard to imagine that too many banks or businesses would jump at taking on that kind of risk — unless, of course, they have a stake in how CIRM eventually dishes out its billions. Biotech interests, for example, may find it worth their while to curry favor with the stem cell grant-givers by spotting the big-business equivalent of a payday cash advance, but. But then, it’s that kind of conflict of interest that got CIRM into trouble in the first place. A dirty little secret about Proposition 71 is that it places virtually no ethical safeguards on how CIRM goes about its business. Its oversight committee is mostly exempt from state conflict-of-interest and open-meeting laws, which is significant, because members may have a stake in the institutions upon which they will heap millions in taxpayer-financed research grants. Proposition 71 also bars the Legislature from exerting any regulation over the institute for three years — and even then only with a 70 percent vote in both houses, thus all but ensuring that CIRM will never be answerable to anyone. CIRM’s Independent Citizens Oversight Committee thus finds itself in the enviable position of being its own ethical watchdog. It gets to craft its own rules and bylaws, and it gets to determine what information, if any, it shares with the taxpaying public. Not surprisingly, it has opted to take a rather permissive view of how members can go about conducting their business. Sometime before the institute starts distributing grants, it will also get to establish its own ethical guidelines for the research it will fund — another example of the roosters guarding the henhouse. Back during the Proposition 71 campaign, proponents wouldn’t even acknowledge that there are ethical questions connected to the deliberate creation, cloning and destruction of human life for purposes of scientific experimentation. So expect the limitations on CIRM-funded science to be like the limitations on CIRM overseers’ conflicts of interest — pretty much nonexistent. None of which bodes well for a movement that promised nothing short of miracles — the lame will walk, a cure for Alzheimer’s, an end to Parkinson’s, all just around the corner — on the basis of a nascent, morally and practically problematic technology that experts agree is, at best, decades away from delivering on any significant real-world applications. In the end, CIRM’s legal difficulties may prove to be the least of its problems. When taxpayers must start repaying $6 billion in loans and interest, when conflict-of-interest scandals and tales of morally bankrupt human experimentation come to the fore — and as unrealistically high public expectations go unmet — the champagne dreams of big business, academia and special interests may well fall flat. San Francisco, this baby’s all yours. — Chris Weinkopf is the Daily News’ editorial-page editor. Write to him by e-mail at chris.weinkopf@dailynews.com. 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