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Maryland Joins Sprint to Lead in Biotechnology

June 17, 2008

By Laura Smitherman, The Baltimore Sun

Jun. 17–Gov. Martin O’Malley unveiled yesterday a proposal to invest $1.1 billion over the next decade to cement Maryland’s status as a pre-eminent hub for biotechnology research, including stem-cell studies aimed at finding breakthrough medical advances.

The funding, which would build on existing tax credits and grant programs, would be used to create a biotechnology center, finance capital projects and make equity investments in start-up companies. O’Malley, a Democrat, said the money could transform Maryland — where the human genome was mapped in 2001 — into a global leader in personalized medicine or the use of genetics to tailor treatments.

“Bioscience is in many ways the key to unlocking our future economic potential as a state,” O’Malley said in a speech at the Johns Hopkins University. “At the same time, it allows us to offer moral leadership as we seek to extend healing and human compassion to our neighbors all around the globe.”

Maryland is among several states, including New York and California, racing to attract the growing biotech industry. Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick signed legislation yesterday that would pump $1 billion into that state’s life sciences industry during the next decade. O’Malley made a point of saying that his 10-year plan would be the largest per capita investment of any state’s in the nation. It marks Maryland’s first long-term commitment to funding bioscience research.

O’Malley would fund many of the new programs in his budget next year, but it is unclear how new spending initiatives will be received in the General Assembly, which raised taxes and cut spending during a contentious special legislative session late last year. If this spring’s budget battles over funding for stem-cell research are an indication — some lawmakers objected to the funding on both fiscal and moral grounds — the governor could face resistance.

The plan calls for about $19 million in new spending next year, with some initiatives increased annually over the next decade. The O’Malley administration estimated that the state’s investment could be used to leverage an added $6.3 billion in private and federal investment.

Industry observers said yesterday that Maryland is uniquely positioned to capitalize on biotechnology, with its prestigious university research facilities and the National Institutes of Health and Army laboratories at Fort Detrick located in the state. Celera Genomics, a private biotech company based in Rockville, made global headlines when it sequenced the entire human genome in 2001.Maryland’s economy has undergone a long-term shift away from manufacturing to the services sector, and many economic development officials see biotechnology as key to that transformation.

“Maryland is going to be seen as one of the major states investing in this area,” said Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business and civic organization. “We certainly see manufacturing has been on the decline in the past, and life sciences are really the new manufacturing for the 21st century.”

The bioscience industry in the state has been going through upheaval in recent months, and there are only 30,000 private-sector bioscience jobs in the state, or about 1 percent of total employment, according to the Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore-based economic research consulting firm. Three biotech companies have been acquired by a foreign company in the last year, including CoGenesys Inc., a Rockville biotech firm spun off from Human Genome Sciences Inc., which was sold for $400 million to Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Inc., an Israeli company.

Aris Melissaratos, the state’s former economic development chief who now works at Johns Hopkins, said that the acquisition of local companies by larger biotech or pharmaceutical companies provides an economic boost, and those operations often remain in the state. He said he has been an investor in biotech since 1980 and predicts that the industry is on the cusp of a “golden era.”

“It’s a long road; it doesn’t happen overnight,” said Melissaratos. “The big appeal for society is, by succeeding in these efforts, you are coming up with miracle drugs that can help humankind. We are enhancing the ability of our aging demographic to extend life expectancy.”

O’Malley traveled to Israel last month for a biotech conference and plans to travel this week to San Diego for the annual BIO conference, run by the Biotechnology Industry Organization trade group. He also visited North Carolina recently to discuss the success of that state’s Research Triangle, a high-tech research and development center.

Under a nine-point plan outlined by O’Malley yesterday, the state would build incubators that help small technology companies bring their ideas to market, expand a University of Maryland law school program to work with entrepreneurs to protect intellectual property, and direct at least $20 million annually to stem-cell research.

This year, O’Malley proposed $23 million for the stem-cell fund, which the state legislature cut to $19 million. Maryland and other states have provided funding for stem-cell research in the past few years as a result of President Bush’s 2001 decision to restrict federal funding. The appropriations have drawn controversy, as opponents say some stem cell research is morally wrong because it can result in the destruction of embryos.

O’Malley yesterday toured the Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering, where scientists are working with stem cells. The research is considered a promising avenue for finding treatments for a variety of diseases, including cancer and Parkinson’s. O’Malley said bioscience is achieving what a generation ago would have thought was “science fiction.”

“If in Maryland we are willing to invest in that future,” O’Malley said, “then together we can become a leader in this new scientific frontier.”

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

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