Panel stalls funding for center Questions hold back biotechnology project


ANNAPOLIS -- A House subcommittee balked this week at releasing $1.5 million in funds to design a facility to help small biotechnology companies move their products from the laboratory to the factory floor.

Despite the support of legislative analysts, a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee decided Wednesday that there are still too many unanswered questions about the proposed $23 million Maryland Bioprocessing Center for the panel to make available the money that the General Assembly tentatively allocated for it.

But subcommittee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, suggested that if the project's backers can come up with some answers within two weeks, when a Senate panel will meet to debate the funding, the money probably will be released.

"This committee, I think, is committed to this activity," Mr. Rawlings said. "But it is not committed to something we have some confusion about."

The confusion stemmed from the issue of U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of the bioprocessing center. The 51,000-square-foot center would have facilities to house temporarily several companies that need sophisticated equipment and manufacturing space to take their products through FDA certification trials and to prepare for full-scale manufacturing.

The facility, likely to be located in the Baltimore area, is a cornerstone of the Maryland business community's efforts to capitalize on the region's strengths in "life sciences" industries, including biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and marine biology.

The legislature appropriated the design funds, but said the money wouldn't be released until the state Department of Economic and Employment Development presented a business plan to the two budget committees.

The lawmakers yesterday questioned DEED officials and private-sector biotechnology executives about whether the facility would be able to obtain FDA approval.

Although the FDA officially approves only specific products and not facilities, such as the proposed bioprocessing center, it does inspect such facilities and allow the good ones to continue operating, a de facto approval, according to William P. Tew, chairman of Baltimore-based Chesapeake Biological Laboratories Inc.

His explanations left the legislators with more questions, however, and they agreed to wait until July 16 to make a decision on releasing the $1.5 million.

An even bigger money battle is certain to arise during next year's legislative session, when the project's supporters will ask for $15 million in capital funding to build and outfit the facility.

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