Bioethics Blogs

Scandals Waiting to Happen: Institutional Conflicts of Interest at California Stem Cell Agency

David Jensen, who writes the essential California Stem Cell Report blog, published a detailed front-page article in the Sacramento Bee on September 2 with the eye-catching headline:

Stem cell company paid $443,500 to former head of state agency that funds research

As has previously been reported, Alan Trounson joined the board of StemCells Inc. in 2014, about a week after he resigned from a six-year stint as President of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to return to Australia. CIRM, which is funded by California taxpayers, had previously allotted some $40 million of grants to the company, which is based just across the Bay from Stanford.

As Jensen recounts, some of those grants had raised questions; one was made despite having been twice rejected by the grant committee. In addition, Irving Weissman, a Stanford-based cofounder of the company, has received research grants amounting to $30.5 million from the agency. Weissman notoriously appeared in TV advertisements promoting the establishment of CIRM, while wearing a white coat and identifying himself as a doctor (which he also is). In total, Stanford has receieved over a quarter of a billion dollars from CIRM, including over $40 million for a new building.

The new information that Jensen turned up in SEC filings was how much StemCells Inc. then paid Trounson: $59,500 in cash over a year and a half (far more than any other board member) and nominally $384,000 in stock options. (The stock has since tanked completely.)

Did Trounson or StemCells Inc. do anything illegal? Quite likely not. Was this transaction appropriate?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.