California's stem cell agency, which oversees $3 billion in research funds, has announced plans to address long-standing conflict of interest concerns involving its governing board.

Under the new policy, tentatively approved last week, the 13 board members of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine who represent institutions eligible for funding from the agency would no longer vote on grants brought before the board.

The board's final vote is expected March 19.

The stem cell agency was created in 2005 after California voters approved Proposition 71 to fund cutting-edge scientific research in the hope of finding cures and treatments for a host of debilitating diseases.

From the beginning, critics raised concerns about the potential for conflicts of interest on its 29-member governing board.

An independent group of scientists reviews grant applications and makes funding recommendations to the board. It approves the recommendations about 98 percent of the time, said agency spokesman Kevin McCormack. But the board can also approve grants that weren't recommended.

The board includes representatives of such prestigious research institutions as Stanford University, UC San Francisco, UC Berkeley, other UC campuses, Children's Hospital and Research Center Oakland, City of Hope and the Keck School of Medicine. Such institutions have received 90 percent of the $1.3 billion in grants distributed thus far to 59 organizations, McCormack said.


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Because of the concerns, the stem cell agency asked the influential Institute of Medicine to evaluate its operations. Last month, the national institute called for structural changes in the agency board to reduce the chance of conflicts of interest.

The board thought it was important to act quickly on the recommendations "even though we don't necessarily agree there is a conflict of interest," McCormack said.

A consumer advocate said Monday he is pleased to see the board tackle the issue but isn't sure it goes far enough.

"They're taking the IOM criticism very seriously -- this is a welcome change from the circle-the-wagon approach," said John Simpson, director of the stem cell project at Consumer Watchdog. "They should get an A for effort. But while there is an attempt to do something, I'm not sure it will be enough at the end of the day."

Simpson noted that the 13 board members representing research institutions will still be allowed to participate in grant discussions, even though they can't vote on them. He questioned whether such representatives should be allowed to remain on the board, which also includes patient advocates and industry representatives.

"It needs to be a smaller board, and it needs to include disinterested people," Simpson said.

McCormack countered that representatives of research institutions have a valuable perspective.

"These are all eminent scientists," he said. "They bring a level of expertise to the board that you really can't find anywhere else."

He added that the board wanted to act quickly, and changing the structure of the governing board would require a public vote or the approval of two-thirds of state legislators, a lengthy process that could take a year or longer.

The board also tentatively agreed last week to set up a scientific advisory panel to make recommendations on funding priorities for the agency, and to allow patient advocates to remain as members of grant committees but not allow them to vote on individual applications.

Sandy Kleffman covers health. Contact her at 510-293-2478. Follow her at Twitter.com/skleffman.