CIRM's New President: The Good and the Bad

Posted by Jesse Reynolds September 17, 2007
Biopolitical Times
Alan Trounson

After a protracted search, the California stem cell agency announced that Australia's leading stem cell researcher, Alan Trounson, will become its new president. Trounson certainly brings a lot to the table. He's an accomplished scientist, businessman, and advocate - a diverse set of skills which will be critical for such a challenging post. Of course, the most important skill - the ability to juggle the numerous strong personalities and interests on the agency's board - is less visible from a CV.

As a businessman, Trounson has founded at least eight companies - a fact that he and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine were wise to immediately disclose. He's promised that he'll divest himself of any business interests in stem cell research. While certainly commendable, I am curious to see details of the divestment.

Some have praised Trounson for joining in the criticism of broadly-worded embryonic stem cell patents held by James Thompson of the University of Wisconsin. What's been less discussed is that Trounson himself is listed as an inventor on a rather broadly-worded embryonic stem cell patent, and has applied for three more [Detailed PDF].

As an advocate, Trounson got himself into hot water five years ago by misrepresenting the progress of embryonic stem cell research before the Australian Parliament. He showed MPs a video of a paralyzed rat that regained mobility after an injection of what he claimed were human embryonic stem cells. In fact, it had been treated with germ cells taken from a human embryo after 5 to 9 weeks of development. This caught the attention of the Prime Minister, who called Trounson's statements "very untidy" and ordered a review of a US$ 24 million grant.

Of all his public activities, I find Trounson's position on cloning-based stem cell research to the most interesting. He has repeatedly made skeptical statements (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) on the potential for the theoretical technique to produce cures, regularly citing its inefficiency and impracticality, particularly the need for many human eggs. Trounson has even called it "a non-event."

But when actual limits on the practice are at stake, Trounson has changed his tune. During debates at the United Nations on a global ban on human cloning, he said that "the benefits of therapeutic cloning are really quite enormous." And when Australia was reviewing its three-year moratorium on research cloning, Trounson said, "This is really something that we can't ignore.... I think it's terribly important to make disease-specific stem cells. A lot of people think that we will see things happening to those cells that we wouldn't be able to predict if we're looking at patients with the full expression of the disease."