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Citizenship costs Canadian top California stem cell post Add to ...

In the global endeavour that science has become, where research knows no borders, it is a strange story. In the small and highly specialized world of stem cell research, it is even stranger still.

An internationally respected Canadian scientist who was the leading candidate to become the head of California's high-profile stem cell research institute was, at the last minute, banned from consideration because he is not an American.

Dr. Alan Bernstein, founding president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, a one-time researcher in stem cell biology, and currently executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise in New York, had even been nominated by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to be the next chairman of the California Institutes for Regenerative Medicine. He also had the backing of the institute's current chairman, Robert Klein.

But while Dr. Bernstein might have been the right man for the job - his citizenship was all wrong.

"It is a state law that says a state agency has to be run by a U.S. citizen," said Don Gibbons, a CIRM spokesman who described the statute as "obscure."

"We weren't aware of the code."

Apparently, neither was the Governor.

In an interview Friday, Dr. Bernstein said he had received a personal letter from Gov. Schwarzenegger last week saying he was pleased to nominate him for the top job. But this week, he said, the Governor wrote again with regrets that he would have to withdraw his nomination because of his citizenship.

"I think the whole thing has been very unfortunate," Dr. Bernstein said. "Everyone knows I am a Canadian.

"Science is an international endeavour …certainly this is not what I am used to."

The California institute was launched in 2004, partly in response to government restrictions on embryonic stem cell research at the time. Under the George W. Bush government, federally funded scientists were barred from working with new lines of embryonic stem cells because an embryo had to be destroyed to harvest the cells.

But under the famous Proposition 71, Californians voted to support such research with bond sales, creating the $3-billion institute.

To date, California real estate developer Mr. Klein, who spearheaded the proposition, has been chairman of CIRM and he will now stay on to find a successor due to the "technical legal requirement regarding citizenship," the institute announced Friday.

"I want to thank Dr. Alan Bernstein for his willingness to consider joining our effort," Mr. Klein said in a statement, calling him "a scientist and patient advocate of impeccable credentials."

"I will work with the Board and the constitutional officers to identify candidates who meet his high standard to succeed me."

The Bernstein case is raising questions about the validity of the California law, particularly as it applies to an institute trying to position itself as a world leader in one of medicine's most promising areas.

"CIRM should be picking the best candidate for the job, not basing it on citizenship," said Mick Bhatia, scientific director of McMaster University's Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute. The number of stem cell researchers is relatively small, he said, and the number with international managerial experience even smaller.

"Then to have to fractionate that by the number of U.S. citizens - you've got to be down to a few zip codes," said Dr. Bhatia, who turned down an offer to join the California institute a few years ago. "For an initiative that has been so global in their outreach … actively recruiting scientists internationally … I'm sure this rule is hurting CIRM."

David Colman, the American who has headed the famed Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University for the past eight years, called the California law "archaic and anachronistic."

"In this day and age, it's ridiculous," he said. "Today, you want to have international searches for everything. Alan is a smart, good scientist and a tested leader. He would have been great."

A Thursday story in the Los Angeles Times suggested Dr. Bernstein might be a candidate with a conflict of interest. Earlier this fall, Dr. Bernstein chaired an international panel that gave a positive review to the work at CIRM, which has been criticized for big spending and slow progress.

The chairman's salary is reported to be one of the highest public paycheques in the state, topping out beyond the $500,000 U.S. range - far more than the governor makes.

But Dr. Bernstein said: "There was no conflict of interest, the review was done before I was approached about this job." He said Mr. Klein contacted him only recently to ask if he would be interested.

"I didn't go after this job, I'm very happy where I am," he said, "pumped about the research in HIV prevention. …But what do they say - you can't say no to The Terminator?"

Dr. Bernstein eventually allowed his name to go forward as a possible candidate.

To be chairman of CIRM, candidates must be nominated by a panel of four - California's governor, and lieutenant governor, both of whom named Dr. Bernstein, plus the state's treasurer and controller. The institute's board then votes on the nominees.

Dr. Bernstein, who worked under the Canadian scientists who discovered stem cells nearly 50 years ago, said he feels the publicity around his candidacy "compromises his international reputation and the reputation of the [California]agency."

CIRM spokesman Mr. Gibbons said "no decision has been made about challenging the law."

 

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