Two threats to Md.'s life sciences industry

Rockville researchers are on the cusp of developing the first-ever malaria vaccine. The impact on global health would be revolutionary — the mosquito-borne disease sickens 200 million people each year and claims more than half a million lives.

This latest breakthrough is just one of many flowing from Maryland's biotech companies. Our bioscience sector is now poised to lead the fight against a long list of diseases — from cancer to Alzheimer's.

And while medical innovation has significant health benefits, advances in the life sciences have also had tremendous spillover gains for our state's economy. Over the past decade, Maryland's biotech sector has been key to boosting job growth and spurring economic development.

But this vital sector may be in jeopardy. Two short-sighted proposals making the rounds in Washington could deter investment in biotech, thereby impeding job growth and stalling medical discoveries. Our leaders need to recognize the economic and health benefits of a strong biotech sector and reject these ill-advised policy changes.

Maryland is home to a thriving cluster of biotech firms, supported by world-class universities and research institutions, including the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland. The industry is responsible for 6 percent of the state's economic output and directly accounts for 71,600 jobs. According to a state report, biotech is responsible for fully one-third of all state job gains since 2002.

Nor is the industry even close to maxing out. Earlier this month, for example, Bethesda's Precision for Medicine announced it was expanding facilities and adding 170 new jobs. Employment opportunities in biotech are projected to continue to increase twice as quickly as openings in other areas.

But the economic dividends don't end there. Biotech's strength also serves as a foundation for job growth in other sectors. One study from the University of Georgia found that every job created in the life sciences generates an additional two opportunities in other industries.

Biotech innovation and the jobs it creates don't come out of a vacuum, however. This activity takes place against a policy backdrop that can advance biomedical progress — or hamper it. Many small businesses like my firm, Omic Biosystems, can see that misguided policies will further delay product development and innovations.

Developing new treatments is risky business. On average, it takes 10-15 years and $1.2 billion for a new treatment to reach pharmacy shelves.

The Maryland researchers behind the potential malaria vaccine understand this exacting process first hand. Scientists have struggled to produce a cure for malaria for more than three decades. A previous endeavor cost $300 million over 25 years — only to produce disappointing results. The Maryland effort, if ultimately successful, will require three to five more years to bring to fruition.

To persevere against such daunting odds, biotech firms need assurance that they will recover their enormous investments of time and money.

One critical piece of assurance is a sufficient period of data protection — the time during which competitors are barred from access to a company's research data. Current law recognizes the difficulty of scientific discovery and grants companies 12 years of exclusivity for biologic drugs.

But now some lawmakers are pushing to shorten that period to just seven years. Such proposals must be rejected. Without adequate protection from the makers of copycat drugs, biotech investment will quickly dry up.

We must also protect medical research from short-sighted Medicare cost-cutting measures. Congress is now considering instituting a system of rebates into the popular prescription drug benefit, Part D. In its current form, Part D is holding down costs for 38 million seniors, while coming in 45 percent under initial budget projections.

Implementing rebates will upend those successes. Mandating that businesses sell their products at below-market prices will force these firms to reduce their research and development funding. Future medical breakthroughs may never make it out of the lab.

Either proposal will strike a blow to Maryland's prosperity. If we allow our competitive edge to be eroded by misguided policies, we run the risk of watching helplessly as Maryland's biotech sector moves overseas to seek a better climate for investment. Thousands of jobs and hundreds of potential lifesaving treatments could be lost.

Maryland's biotechnology sector is driving economic growth and producing breakthrough medical advancements. Lawmakers must say no to proposals that could undermine the successes of this vital industry.

Feng Tao is co-founder and CEO of Omic Biosystems, Inc., in Rockville. His email is

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