ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Stem Cell Commission is the state panel charged with distributing $15 million in research grants to universities, research labs and biotech companies throughout the state. To do this job, the commission needs members able to understand the science behind stem cell research.
Yet, as the commission’s 15 members settle down to work, it is becoming increasingly clear that some members face a built-in conflict of interest – as they come from the same institutions applying for the grants.
For example, both Johns Hopkins University and the University System of Maryland – institutions that will almost certainly have scientists applying for grants — by law appoint three members each to the commission. While none of those six Hopkins and Maryland members themselves conduct research, their absence from deliberations on applications from those institutions would presumably be felt.
The potential for conflicts extends beyond the universities, however. The commission’s chairwoman Linda Powers is the co-founder and managing director of the venture capital firm Toucan Capital, which is a shareholder in a dozen biotech companies that conduct stem cell research – three of which are in Maryland.
Powers says that members of the commission – established by the General Assembly during its last session – are “very cognizant of” potential conflict of interests. She said that the commission will be discussing some of these questions soon.
Powers said that she, for one, would abstain from voting if the commission were ever to review an application from a company in which her firm had an interest.
Partly because of the potential for conflicts, the legislation that set up the commission establishes a two-part process for grant review in an effort to give maximum protection from improper influence, Powers said.
All applications will first be evaluated by an independent scientific review board that is made up of stem cell researchers from outside the state of Maryland.
This review board does the majority of the evaluation, but ultimately decisions are made by members of the commission itself, who will “rely heavily” on the review board’s assessment, according to Powers.
However, the legislation did not detail whether commission members would be allowed to vote on applications from their own institution’s researchers.
The specifics of whether these members will even be allowed to contribute to deliberations “have not been spelled out yet,” said Powers.
The commission’s decision highlights a dilemma that any such board faces: while it needs technical and scientific expertise, that expertise is often found only among people who because of their jobs have an inherent conflict of interest.
“There’s really no way around this issue – if you’re going to be a Maryland commission, there are going to be members from University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins,” said Dr. Steven Salzberg, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland and director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology.
Salzberg, who held an appointed position at Johns Hopkins until last year, said that he expects that scientists will be able to vote on applications from their own institutions.
“It would be silly for the members to step out of the room” said Salzberg, pointing out that members from Johns Hopkins and the Maryland System make up 6 out of the 15 person panel.
Reviewing an application from your own institution is not considered a conflict of interest at the National Institutes of Health, Salzberg said.
However, Salzberg said that he would recuse himself if the application were from someone with whom he had worked directly.
On other hand, Dr. Murray Sachs, a professor and director of the Biomedical Engineering Department at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, seemed startled by the idea that commission members would be able to vote on applications from their own institution.
“I can’t imagine that they would vote on [grants from the same institution],” said Sachs.
While Sachs said he was confident he could vote in an impartial way on an application from a Hopkins researcher he wouldn’t, “just because of the appearance of a conflict.”
“We want to avoid an appearance of a conflict completely,” Sachs said.
Powers agreed, saying that the commission had a “mechanism for recusal” for dealing with conflict of interest.
Powers said that she thinks that members will abstain from voting on applications that come from their own institution.
“…The usual approach is for people from the relevant institution to be absent for the vote on anything from their own institution,” commission member Diane Griffin wrote in an email.
Griffin is a professor and chairman of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Members of the Maryland Stem Cell Commission are particularly sensitive to conflict of interest issues because of problems that arose in California.
The California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, created when California voters approved $3 billion for stem cell research over ten years in 2004, drew fire from critics when members of the board were revealed to have large personal investments in biotech companies involved in stem cell research.
The California board was put together with “speed being a higher priority than moving responsibly,” said Jesse Reynolds, the director of the project on biotechnology in the public interest, center for genetics and society, non profit policy research and advocacy group. The Maryland commission is “very mindful of [conflict of interest] because it has been a big issue in California,” Powers said. “The [Maryland] legislature addressed it explicitly in the legislation. California didn’t.”