O'Malley seeks increase in state stem cell funding

The Baltimore Sun

ROCKVILLE -- Gov. Martin O'Malley called for legislators to include increased funding for the state's stem cell research program in next year's budget, saying Maryland needs to make every effort to maintain and improve its position as a national leader in biotechnology and the life sciences.

Speaking after a tour yesterday of Human Genome Sciences, a Rockville pharmaceutical company that is developing treatments for diseases including lupus, anthrax and hepatitis C, O'Malley applauded the legislature's passage of his proposal to create a Life Sciences Advisory Board. He said it would help the state develop a long-term plan for the growth of the industry in Maryland.

But he said he will push for the General Assembly to approve the full $25 million that he requested for stem cell research in the budget now under debate in Annapolis. The House of Delegates supported the full funding of O'Malley's request, but the Senate voted to cut the funding to $15 million, the amount in the current budget.

"We have had an overwhelming response for these limited dollars to create more start-ups, more jobs and advance the healing power of stem cells," O'Malley said. "It's one we hope to push over the goal line in the conference committee."

House and Senate negotiators are scheduled today to work out compromises on stem cell funding and other unresolved issues in O'Malley's $30 billion budget request.

John M. Wasilisin, the deputy executive director of the Maryland Technology Development Corp., the quasi-governmental body known as TEDCO that is in charge of distributing the stem cell grants, said the state received 86 requests for funding this year, totaling $81 million.

Wasilisin said that although some states have dedicated considerably more to stem cell research - notably California, where the state is investing $3 billion over 10 years - Maryland was one of the earliest states to enact a funding program. That has piqued the interest of private investors and start-up companies that could choose to locate elsewhere, he said.

"We have gotten a lot of interest in this field," Wasilisin said. "We're going to be able to demonstrate that Maryland can spend this money and then some on some potentially life-altering projects."

Several heads of biotechnology companies who joined O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown on yesterday's tour said government support for start-up companies can be essential to their prospects.

Joe Hernandez, president of Innovative Biosensor Inc., a company that develops products to test for the presence of viruses, said his and other new companies have had difficulty finding venture capital investors in Maryland. But he said the validation of state support can help interest private investors.

Thomas Watkins, the president and chief executive officer of Human Genome Sciences, said Maryland is is one of leading states for the biological sciences. The Washington-Baltimore area ranks with Boston, the San Francisco Bay area and Southern California, which makes it easier to recruit workers, he said. Potential employees are often looking for someplace where there are other professional opportunities for spouses or for further career moves.

"Prospective employees who are considering coming to work with us are always interested in knowing, 'What are my back-up options?'" Watkins said.

Watkins, Hernandez and others said that since the key for a high-tech company to succeed is its ability to attract skilled workers, the quality of life in a state is as important an ingredient as any. The employees they recruit can go anywhere in the country, so good transportation, cultural amenities, affordable housing and good schools are essential, they said.

O'Malley said he sees state support for environmental protection, transportation infrastructure and education as key to Maryland's plans for developing life-science industries. "So much of this new creative economy is about people ... and creating the environment that creative people are attracted to," he said. "It's all about creating a place of choice for these very talented people who have a lot of choices."



Previous stories about issues related to stem-cell research at baltimoresun.com/stemcell

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