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Stem Cell Panel Has Vested Interest in Research

Enron and Arthur Andersen have nothing over the National Academy of Sciences when it comes to deceiving the public.

An NAS panel opined last week that human reproductive cloning should be banned, but that cloning for medical research purposes — euphemistically termed "creation of embryonic stems cells by nuclear transplantation" — should be allowed.

The NAS' recommendations were trumpeted by major media such as The Washington Post and The New York Times in front-page stories coupled with sycophantic editorials.

But these illustrious media outlets failed to report information that would have exposed the NAS' recommendations as the best pre-determined conclusions taxpayer money can buy. Giving a free pass to skullduggery that could rival Enron's, the media never mentioned that the scientists on the panel were known proponents of stem cell study with vested financial and/or professional interest in the continued funding of that research.

Taxpayer-funded medical research is big business. Billions of dollars pour into the National Institutes of Health every year; entrepreneurial researchers often then turn the fruits of this taxpayer-funded research into lucrative private businesses.

Last August, President Bush threatened growth prospects for an emerging sector of this business.

Weighing the morality of human embryo destruction against the potential of medical research, the president limited the flow of taxpayer dollars to embryonic stem cell research — hyped as possibly leading to cures for many diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's.

The president's action disappointed stem cell researchers who so far have relied on monies raised in the capital markets. This funding is insufficient and may eventually disappear as investors realize that financial returns from stem cell research might be decades away if they come at all.

Enter Bruce Alberts, the Wizard of Oz-like president of the NAS.

The politically savvy Alberts fancies that taxpayer spigots can be opened by pressuring Bush. What better way to do this than through widely publicized recommendations from the NAS, an elite organization whose elected members represent the cream of the crop of U.S. scientists?

On his own initiative, Alberts put together a special panel, stacked with embryonic stem cell research proponents and researchers already on the taxpayer dole.

Alberts deserves an "Ig Nobel" Prize for picking Stanford University's Irving Weissman as panel chairman.

Weissman has received 131 research grants courtesy of taxpayers, including 22 for stem cell research. The grants pale in comparison to the real fruits of his research.

Weissman co-founded Systemix Inc., a 1990s stem cell research company. Systemix sold for $468 million, netting Weissman a cool $20 million — even though the company failed to deliver on expected cancer and AIDS therapies. Weissman then co-founded StemCells Inc., currently with a market value of about $80 million.

Taxpayers and stem cells have been very good to Irving.

Weissman isn't the only panel member predisposed to taxpayer-funded research and its exploitation.

The 11 members of the NAS panel have garnered 596 grants from taxpayers altogether. Three other panel members are officers in professional societies affiliated with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology — a group lobbying for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Breast-feeding off taxpayers is as natural to the NAS panel members as breathing.

But there's more.

Panel member David Galas (8 grants) has interests in two biotech companies, Chiroscience R&D Inc. and Blue Heron Biotechnology Co. Panel member Gerald Rubin (71 grants) co-founded Exelixis Inc., a genomic research company worth $694 million. Even the NAS member overseeing the panel's work, Maxine Singer, is a director of Perlegen Sciences Inc., a genomics company that just raised $100 million.

Was there any chance this panel would recommend against federal funding of embryonic stem cell research? Not if Alberts could help it.

Were these conflicts fully and frankly disclosed by the NAS? No.

There are passing mentions on the NAS Web site of Weissman's links with Systemix and StemCells and Galas' link with Chiroscience. But panel members' grant histories, other corporate links and financial information, and FASEB connections were omitted. And, of course, no mention of these conflicts appeared in media coverage.

Last summer, when the panel was formed, the National Journal asked about omitted disclosures from the NAS Web site. NAS Executive Officer E. William Colglazier offered an Enron-ish explanation: "It is up to our discretion to decide what we put in the bios," he said.

Alberts stated at a press conference that the NAS undertook the report "because we believe the nation needs a clear, unbiased scientific examination of proposals for human reproductive cloning." He then introduced Weissman merely as a "professor of cancer biology, pathology and developmental biology at Stanford University School of Medicine."

I guess "taxpayer-made stem cell tycoon" would have made the audience howl with laughter.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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