Cultivating cures

November 02, 2005

News that a top stem-cell researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine is leaving Maryland to work in California is sobering but not surprising. California is spending the dollars that attract talent, while Maryland's leaders still are only talking about it. The state must do better or it will lose its pre-eminence - and the jobs, patents and other benefits inherent in this promising field.

Researcher Peter J. Donovan only recently moved to Baltimore, lured by the quality of the Hopkins team. But a bill to offer up to $25 million in research grants for embryonic stem-cell work died at the end of the last legislative session, so Dr. Donovan is headed to California, which will spend $3 billion over the next decade to support such work.

Officials here agree on the need to foster a strong biotechnology economy. It's smart to build on the work of nearby national research labs and Maryland's top university facilities and brainpower to offset the state's economic losses in manufacturing and other areas. But state officials haven't put the money on the table. Researchers and labs need assurances that support will be there long-term; it takes years from a breakthrough to develop, test and market a practical technique or therapy.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. did not openly support the proposed stem-cell research incentives until the waning days of the session, but was more vigorous in his support last month during the opening of a new biotechnology business building at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

It's not yet clear what he will propose; talk is of another building.

But if he were to ask the people doing the work, they'd say that they have enough space now and expect more in the future, including the extensive building projects at Hopkins as well as the west-side biotech center where he made the announcement. What they need is money for people to do the research - and a promise that this isn't something that appears in the budget during an election year then disappears the next.

It's not a partisan issue: 78 percent of Marylanders support embryonic stem-cell research using surplus embryos from in vitro clinics, according to a Gonzales Research and Marketing survey done in February.

The governor and the legislature should aid this fledgling economic sector in a way that works, as speedily as is practical. Maryland cannot afford to lose more of its best asset: its great minds.

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