Pizzo to help oversee state stem cell research effort

Medical school dean becomes the first person to be named to committee that governs Prop. 71 funding

Dean Philip Pizzo

Steve Westly

Medical school Dean Philip Pizzo, MD, on Friday became the first person named to serve on the committee that will oversee the distribution of roughly $3 billion in state funds for embryonic stem cell research. His appointment came just three days after California voters resoundingly approved Proposition 71, authorizing the spending of as much as $295 million annually for the next 10 years for stem cell work in the state.

Pizzo, the Carl and Elizabeth Naumann Professor for the Dean of the School of Medicine, will be one of 29 members of the Independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee. Under Prop. 71, this panel is charged with governing the new agency—the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine—that will handle the day-to-day management and disbursement of the research money.

Over the next months, additional committee members will be drawn from the UC campuses, private universities in California, biotech industry associations, nonprofit research institutes and disease advocacy groups. The governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer and controller are each empowered to name members to the panel. Pizzo was tapped by State Controller Steve Westly.

In an e-mail interview, Pizzo wrote that the panel must make sure the state’s $3 billion investment is spent on the highest quality research. The goal, he said, is to improve the health of adults and children

facing serious disease. To accomplish this objective, the panel must chart out a long-term plan for the new institute and, among other tasks, select members for three working groups that will make recommendations for the committee.

One of these working groups involve stem cell experts who will evaluate grant proposals and make decisions about which research grants to fund. Another panel will ensure that all research meets scientific, medical and ethical standards and a third will award grants for facilities and capital equipment to support stem cell research.

Before becoming dean of the medical school in 2001, Pizzo was physician-in-chief of Children’s Hospital in Boston and chair of the pediatrics department at Harvard Medical School. He also held several leadership positions at the National Cancer Institute’s infectious disease, pediatric and clinical sciences divisions.

In the news release announcing the appointment, Westly praised Pizzo’s ability to marshal a huge scientific endeavor: “He will help ensure that Californians’ investment in stem cell research will be spent wisely on the science with the highest likelihood of producing cures for diseases.”

Pizzo noted that he sees his role not only as guiding stem cell research in California but also as helping to present a case nationally for the benefits of the field. “I hope that our activities within California will foster more of a national discussion about stem cell research so that our nation benefits from the extraordinary contributions that will emanate from California,” he said.

The position will demand that Pizzo, while continuing to serve as an advocate for the research, also be an impartial arbiter of its development. Some of the contributions in stem cell research, for instance, will likely come from faculty at Stanford, and many researchers here already are planning to apply for Prop. 71 grant money. This poses a potential conflict of interest that Pizzo and colleagues from other universities may have to navigate.

Yet Pizzo said such conflicts often come with the challenge of administering funding for new scientific research, and he pointed to his work on advisory boards for private and national funding agencies such as the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. “I view my responsibility to rise to a higher level than focusing on a single institution and more to the greater public good,” Pizzo said. And in a case with an obvious conflict, he added, Prop. 71 has strict guidelines requiring committee members to recuse themselves from the decision.

The potential for conflicts could also be alleviated by having grants reviewed by stem cell experts from out of state who aren’t eligible for Prop. 71 funds. In an article in Monday’s Sacramento Bee, Theo Palmer, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology, said that national and international stem cell experts should form the panel that reviews grant applications so as to maintain impartiality. “Funding in the research community is regulated by peer review, and it will be important to bring in expertise from outside of California that is not conflicted,” he said.

Pizzo and other members of the Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee will serve eight-year terms with a maximum of two terms. The committee’s first meeting will take place 45 days after the effective date of the act, at which point the members will elect the chairperson and vice chairperson. After that time the committee will hold two public meetings a year in addition to other meetings as necessary. Members receive $100 for each day they spend on ICOC duties.

“I am honored to accept Controller Westly’s invitation to serve on the Independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee,” Pizzo said. “The Institute for Regenerative Medicine will bring new funds to a field of research that has shown the potential to change the way we understand and treat disease.

“Passage of the proposition is a clear affirmation that the citizens of California value this area of scientific investigation.”