I'm surprised all the time. That you can actually create a cure for HIV/AIDS with stem cells — that's in clinical trials [in Denmark] now. That we found how to jump a skin cell to a pancreatic cell or a cardiac muscle cell. Every month comes a new surprise, tumbling toward totally different medicine that we'll have in 30 or 40 years' time.
This work is still controversial. Your team in Australia created the technique that has allowed 5 million in vitro fertilization babies to be born worldwide. But you were still called a "baby murderer." Astrophysicists don't get that kind of reaction.
In the surveys I've seen across the U.S., you get 70% or 80% of people very much in favor [of stem cell and IVF work]. If we get cures or treatments for some of these debilitating diseases, which is going to happen over the next four or five years, people will embrace what's necessary to help a Parkinson's patient or someone who's got Type 1 diabetes. I'm not afraid of what some small sector feels outrage about. It's their right, but it's not the majority feeling.
Have you faced such personal criticism here?
Not really. Last year I was invited to the Vatican to present a paper, but when I sent in a summary of what I was going to say, they decided not to have it. They sent a check to the treasurer of California and the treasurer rang us up and said, "What the heck is this check from the Vatican for?" It was for the inconvenience!
Will California own patents from the research?
I expect there's a lot of intellectual property with some of these [treatments] that will be really big returns for California. But it'll take some time; the so-called blockbuster treatments will take 10 years or more. Gov. [Arnold] Schwarzenegger pointed a finger at me and said, "We're going to give you the opportunity to deliver this, but understand it's a 25-year gig." The feds put $3.8 billion into the human genome project and the return from that, according to a study, is about $1,400 for every dollar.
The big story about CIRM last year was its conflict-of-interest protocols. What's being done?
The [national] Institute of Medicine gave CIRM management strong positives. They had issues on conflict of interest. They felt if the [schools represented by] deans of medicine on the board were the recipient of CIRM [grants], they were potentially in a conflict of interest. The board decided to take away the [grant-making] vote for those [members, at least temporarily]. They also had a view that if the patient advocates [on the board] were strongly advocating for [research for] a disease, that was another kind of conflict. They [changed] some patient advocate roles in some grant selection process. I didn't see this as a problematic issue, but from the point of view of the Institute of Medicine, it didn't look right, and I can understand that. Much has been done to correct that.
You and your wife got married so that she could come here and work.
We didn't really feel it was necessary; we'd been together 20 years and have two lovely boys, but she couldn't come to America without being married to me. She's a scientist — not a stem cell scientist — but [once she got here] she couldn't work at universities in California because of [potential CIRM] conflicts of interest. So she's back in Australia, doing her work and loving it, but it's not optimum. But this is an important job which I promised to do.
Do you get letters from people with diseases asking for help?
All the time. I try to be supportive and send them to talk to the best people in that area. There would be dozens a week who write to me.
You have a heart condition; will this research one day benefit you?
I've got atrial fibrillation; I don't think it's going to help that. But I have a brother who has HIV/AIDS, and my mum died of lung disease.
What do you hear from your colleagues around the world about what California's doing?
They always say, "You've got the best job in the world. How did California do this?" That's California. California is a can-do place, and when they want something, they stand up and do it. Many of [my colleagues] want to come to California. It's just a wonderful place. You could sail it off the coast of America and it would be the most wonderful country in the world.
Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.