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New interim president formally hired for stem cell institute

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STANFORD, Calif. (AP) -- The new interim president of California's $3 billion stem cell research institute said his first task will be to "raid everyplace I can" to hire top scientific talent.

"I'm John the Baptist here to prepare the way ... for the first-rate people who will surely be interested," Zach Hall, a veteran neuroscientist and associate dean of medical research at the University of Southern California, said Tuesday.

The 29-member committee appointed to oversee the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine unanimously approved Hall's $389,004 contract Tuesday, a day after he was recommended by a subcommittee. He succeeds committee chairman Robert Klein.

"He has a remarkable set of credentials ... we are just plain lucky," said committee member David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate in charge of the California Institute of Technology.

The institute was created by Proposition 71 and is bankrolled by $3 billion in bonds, most of which is expected to be doled out as grants to fund research and laboratory construction that supports human embryonic stem cell study.

Hall was director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes at the National Institutes of Health from 1994 to 1997. Before that, Hall headed the neurobiology department at the University of California at San Francisco. He returned to UCSF in 1997 and became executive vice chancellor.

He left UCSF again in 2001 to launch the biotechnology company EnVivo Pharmaceuticals in 2001. He served as chief executive until he joined USC's Keck School of Medicine in 2002.

The institute is expected to hire a permanent president by June. Hall, 67, is expected to serve as chief scientific officer or something similar afterward.

Charles Halpern, a Berkeley writer who filed a legal petition protesting some of its activities, complained that Hall's salary was too lucrative.

Halpern and other institute critics complained that the institute president should be paid a salary comparable to the head of the National Institutes of Health, which is roughly $100,000 less than Hall's pay.

The language of Proposition 71 said the agency's president should be paid in the same range as the leaders of the five University of California medical schools.

SpencerStuart, the San Francisco headhunting firm hired to find a permanent president, pegged the president's salary at between $300,000 and $600,000.

Klein said Hall's salary is "close to what he had at USC," and Baltimore said it was "commensurate with his skills."

Hall said Tuesday he resigned from EnVivo's scientific advisory board, but retains an ownership interest in the private firm. He also said he owns stock in publicly traded biomedical companies that he declined to identify. He said he would file a required financial disclosure form with the state disclosing his holdings within the next 30 days.

Halpern and others called on Hall, Klein and committee vice chair Ed Penhoet to divest themselves of all biotechnology and pharmaceutical interests to avoid appearances of conflict of interests. Klein has made such a vow, but Penhoet -- who co-founded biotechnology firm Chiron Corp. and still owns stock worth millions -- said the companies he's invested in aren't involved in stem cell research. Hall apparently won't divest his medical holdings either.

Halpern said the institute should follow the same conflict guidelines the National Institutes of Health recently adopted, forbidding compensation from any biomedical firm.

"The NIH has very stringent conflict rules," Halpern said. "The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine should follow those best practices."

Halpern and Dr. Philip Lee, a former UCSF chancellor and a former senior official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, filed a petition last month under the state's Administrative Procedure Act demanding the institute install strict conflict rules and cap the institute's maximum salary at $290,000. The institute has 30 days to respond, which Klein said he would do after consulting with agency lawyers.

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