The School of Medicine’s plans to jumpstart a new interdisciplinary stem cell program with $20 million in state funds have been put on hold by ethical questions — not the well-known bioethical debate regarding such research, but alleged conflicts of interest.
State Department of Public Health spokeswoman Lynn Townshend said Thursday that while the money was approved by the state legislature last year, the State Ethics Committee has delayed its allotment due to concerns that the committee that recommended funding increases would stand to gain the most from the subsidies. The nine-person Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee includes representatives affiliated with Yale and the University of Connecticut — the institutions expected to receive the majority of the $100 million available for stem cell research in the next 10 years.
Until state legislators resolve these concerns, the committee has postponed its request for research proposals, Townshend said.
“Legislative leaders are at the table,” she said. “Right now, there are lawyers in the attorney general’s office looking to see what can be done about the composition of the committee and still stay within the law.”
Medical School Dean Robert Alpern said he was surprised that the committee included members affiliated with Yale and UConn.
“We are in 100 percent agreement with the ethics committee there never should have been anyone on that committee who could have received research funding,” Alpern said. “There shouldn’t be anyone on the committee who is employed by any institution that stands to benefit from the research funding.”
But Michael Morand, Yale’s associate vice president for New Haven and state affairs, said there is no way to avoid having committee members affiliated with Yale or UConn on the committee, since most people knowledgeable about stem cell research in Connecticut are connected with one of the two schools in some way, he said.
“The state sought to have knowledgeable people,” Morand said. “In a state of our size, there are more than 100,000 alumni, staff, students and faculty of the University of Connecticut and Yale University. … Policies which prohibited public service by any affiliate of UConn or Yale would render huge numbers of people ineligible for such service.”
Although no final decision has been reached on how to resolve the conflict of interest, Townshend said, committee members may be asked to refrain from voting on grants in which they have a vested interest. But because the committee only has nine members and up to four would be asked to refrain from voting at a time, another solution may have to be found, she said. Townshend said officials hope to be able resolve the problem in time to release grant applications by the end of May, more than a month after the target date.
Alpern said the delay in the release of state funding has kept officials from finalizing the hiring of a head for a new interdisciplinary stem cell biology program, part of Yale’s efforts to establish itself as a stem cell research leader. The new interdisciplinary program will occupy an entire floor in a new School of Medicine facility being built on Amistad Street, he said.
“[Stem cell research] is a field that’s growing,” Alpern said. “[The state funding] will allow us to really expand our human embryonic stem cell research.”
State grant money is especially important to stem cell researchers because it allows scientists to conduct experiments with embryonic stem cells, for which federal funding is banned, School of Medicine professor Diane Krause — whose research focuses on stem cells — said.
“With this state money, we will be able to work with human embryonic stem cells lines that we cannot use federal money for,” Krause said. “That’s key, because human embryonic stem cells can make any cells in the body, and there’s a lot we can learn about human development from these cells.”
School of Medicine officials said they ultimately hope to transform Yale into a national center for stem cell research. The University already operates research laboratories that focus primarily on stem cell-related work, but Krause said the School of Medicine hopes to consolidate its facilities into a more centralized stem cell research center and hire more faculty to staff it.
Stem cell research is one of the fastest growing areas of biotech research and a popular industry for states to court, said Paul Pescatello, the president of Connecticut United for Research Excellence, which represents biotech groups across the state. Pescatello compared the current biotech fever to the prominence of semiconductors in the 1950s.
“As the state of California was to semiconductors, Connecticut and other states want to position themselves to be that kind of cradle of new research,” he said.
Pescatello said that to address ethical concerns, the state should expand the size of the committee and add out-of-state stem cell research experts so that the committee could still have a quorum if members with conflicts of interest abstained from a given vote.