The Many Hats of Robert Klein

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on April 11th, 2008

In many ways, this weekend's stem cell research advocacy gathering in San Francisco is unremarkable. Many of the same speakers can be found at similar meetings and mini-conventions several times each year. But this one is staged by Americans for Cures, led by Robert Klein, who is also the head of California's multi-billion dollar stem cell research agency. Not only is he juggling two incompatible roles - stem cell booster and public servant - but under his guidance, his advocacy organization has attacked his political opponents, praised his own work, and spread misleading information.

To call Klein a "stem cell czar" is easy, perhaps even modest. He was the primary author of the ballot initiative that created the agency (and insulated it from most public oversight and accountability). He was the chair of the campaign for the initiativeís passage, as well as the campaignís largest donor. After its passage, Klein was unanimously nominated to chair the board of the new agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). In fact, the requirements for the job that he wrote into the law fit his own experience so closely that few other Californians could even have qualified for consideration.

After the ballot measure passed in November 2004, Klein tried to wear both hats, those of booster and of public servant. The initiative campaign transformed into the advocacy group California Research and Cures Coalition, which remained headed by Klein and operated out of his business office in Palo Alto. In response to public criticism, he quickly resigned from the organization.

But Klein couldn't resist politicking for his cause. In 2006, a new group appeared, Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures, with Klein again at the helm. Its first action was to issue a public letter smearing Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) on the eve of her primary election for Secretary of State. She had been the most vocal supporter of the stem cell initiative in the state house, but was now backing legislation to reform the agency. As a taxable lobbying group, Klein's outfit raised also raised money for his political allies in the fall 2006 general election.

Now, Americans for Cures has assumed the mantle of both the California Research and Cures Coalition and Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures. Two months ago, it issued a press release backing one of Klein's pet projects at the CIRM. What's more, it is extensively downplaying the potential of a new alternative to the use of embryos in stem cell research - an alternative whose ascendance would call into question the relevancy of CIRM and its use of taxpayer dollars during a time of budget crunching.   

To top it off, the group is exaggerating the state of cloning-based stem cell research, implying inaccurately that stem cells have already been derived via this technique. Some tidbits from its website:

A research process called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), sometimes referred to as "therapeutic cloning", allows scientists to produce embryonic stem cells without using sperm to fertilize an egg.
Embryonic stem cell research utilizes a process called therapeutic cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), to copy cells with the goal of making stem cells to better treat and cure people with serious diseases and injuries. Using SCNT, scientists can produce embryonic stem cells without using sperm to fertilize an egg.
Patient Specific Stem Cells [glossary entry]: Stem cell lines, developed through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), that match a patient. These cells could be useful as therapeutics to replace disease tissues or, in the case of cells from someone with a genetic disease, to study how the disease occurs.
(Bear in mind that, with a new presidential administration, itís almost certain that funding for cloning-based stem cell research is all that will be left to distinguish CIRM's portfolio from that of the federal government.)

It can be difficult to see the public funding of stem cell research for what it is: An appropriate use of taxpayer dollars that has popular support in California, but that must be balanced against both changing understanding of the research's potential and other funding priorities.

Considering an analogy to a better-known domain can be illuminating. Imagine the response if the appointed head of Californiaís Department of Transportation was also the leader of a highway-building advocacy group that issued statements praising the department head, attacked his or her political opponents, raised funds for allies, spread misinformation about the benefits of highways, and compiled arguments against mass transit and bicycling.

It wouldn't "pass the smell test" for a moment, and this shouldn't either. 

Posted in California, Jesse Reynolds's Blog Posts, Research Cloning, Stem Cell Research


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