Journalists banned from San Diego stem cell conference

By Paul Elias The Associated Press
Wednesday September 25, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO — Next month, some of the best minds in stem cell science will gather at a conference in San Diego to exchange notes, opinions and suggestions on how to invigorate a promising but struggling research field. 

Executives at the few companies hoping someday to turn the embryonic technology into profitable therapies will be out in full force. Venture capitalists, patent attorneys and even a representative from the President’s Council on Bioethics also plan to attend the two-day conference, organized by the Strategic Research Institute. 

Journalists, however, are banned. 

“I instituted this years ago as some members of your profession have caused irreparable ... damage with speaker relationships and in some cases their companies over coverage,” Strategic Research executive Mark Alexay wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. “Hence no coverage. Over and out.” 

Conference organizers said some speakers also may be presenting sensitive research data to their peers that they don’t yet want publicized. 

“Furthermore, many speakers will not give their presentation if they are aware of press in the room,” Strategic Research head Stuart Williams wrote in an e-mail. 

Strategic Research executives declined to discuss the matter over the telephone. 

As a private company, New York-based Strategic Research has no obligation to open its doors to the media. At least one scheduled speaker, David Ayares of PPL Therapeutics of Dolly the cloned sheep fame, said he plans to present data he does not want publicized. 

Still, many of those attending the conference were surprised with the conference organizer’s policy, which some viewed as a public relations mistake. Even conference chairman Dr. Doros Platika, president and chief executive of Cambridge, Mass.-based Centagenetix, Inc. said he was unaware of the press ban until notified by a reporter. 

Religious conservatives and biotechnology foes oppose human embryonic stem cell research as immoral because days-old embryos must be destroyed in the process. Banning media coverage of the conference will only fuel opposition to the research, some conference attendees said. 

“It’s likely they are trying to keep a low profile until they can announce something positive,” said Daniel McConchie of the Christian-based Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, which opposes human embryonic stem cell research. 

“I can understand a ban could encourage people to speak their minds, but this is an area of extreme interest in the media, the public and at the presidential level,” said Joel Martin, a partner with the San Diego venture capital firm Forward Ventures. “Restricting the press raises the impression that something improper is being discussed, and that’s not going to be case.” 

Martin is scheduled to join a conference panel of fellow venture capitalists discussing the commercial possibilities of the technology. 

Martin and others believe opening the event to the press would do more good than harm for a field facing significant scientific, financial and legal obstacles. 

Last year, the Bush administration limited federal funding of human embryonic stem cells to 78 stem cell lines controlled by 14 different government-approved labs. But only a handful of the approved stem cell lines are fit for research, with demand far outstripping supply. 

The business of stem cells also is suffering. 

Menlo Park-based Geron Inc., the one publicly traded company developing human embryonic stem cells, laid off a third of its staff in June. Geron’s stock price hovers around $4 a share, near its 52-week low and far off its 52-week high of $14.48. 

Privately held San Diego-based Cythera recently settled a year-long dispute over ownership of the nine government-approved stem cell lines in its freezer, a fight that stopped scientific development. 

Cloning company PPL early this month announced it was closing its Scotland stem cell research division after failing to find a buyer for it.