Campaigning for biotech

The governor and his new running mate hit the campaign trail in Montgomery County


Hours after announcing his running mate, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took her on the road to drum up support.

Their first stop? The Jewish Community Center in Rockville. And later: Digene Corp., a Gaithersburg biotech that makes a test that looks for a cancer-causing sexually transmitted disease.

"We do not lead the world without leaders like this," Ehrlich said of the company's management. Nearby sat Maryland Secretary of Disabilities Kristen Cox, the governor's newly identified pick to run as his lieutenant governor.

Maryland has claimed the biotechnology industry as one of its top economic drivers for a decade, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to throw notice-me bashes at annual biotech conferences during the past two years and encouraging the creation of two new biotech parks in the city.

But Ehrlich, who co-chaired the Congressional Biotechnology Caucus for four years while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, has drawn criticism from some in the business, who want him to put more money behind all the biotech boasting and to publicly support embryonic stem cell research. Ehrlich has frequently said that he's for the best science, whatever it is.

Each of Maryland's candidates for governor - including Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who recently dropped out of the race for health reasons - has hyped the state's biotechnology industry, which includes more than 370 companies. But Ehrlich said yesterday that the Digene visit wasn't politically motivated.

It had been planned for weeks, Ehrlich said, calling it "fortuitous" that the appointment happened to fall on the same day he announced Cox as his running mate.

Digene officials, however, insisted they weren't contacted until Friday, when they got a call from the state's Department of Business and Economic Development, or DBED.

The difference of opinion didn't seem to bother Digene's chairman and chief executive, Evan Jones, who has met with the governor before and recently announced plans to retire after 16 years with the company to spend more time with his family.

The visit also didn't surprise him.

"Maryland's got a high-tech economy, and intellectually driven economy. This is one of the key sectors," he said, praising Ehrlich's efforts to bolster the industry.

Jones pointed to various tax credits for biotechnology investment that passed under Ehrlich's watch along with $15 million that has been set aside for unspecified stem cell research.

But more important for Digene was the passage of a law last year that requires insurance companies to cover the costs of testing for human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can cause cervical cancer.

Digene is the only company with an HPV test approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

During his visit, the governor spoke to Digene employees, dozens of whom had assembled in the cafeteria to check out the action, leaving only standing room in the back. He was alternately flanked by Cox; his wife, Kendel Ehrlich; and DBED's secretary, Aris Melissaratos - who urged the room to "Get out the vote for Bob Ehrlich."

Ehrlich told jokes, teased Melissaratos for always having ketchup stains on his tie (a claim Ehrlich has made publicly several times) and introduced Cox to the audience with a nod and a wink: "This is her second public appearance," he said, "and she didn't screw up the first one."

Not to be outdone, Cox, who is blind, stood up and announced she never knew about the ketchup stains.

The banter was all very similar to another stop Ehrlich made at a biotech company in February.

While state legislators debated funding for stem cell work last winter, Ehrlich swung by Fells Point to Osiris Therapeutics Inc., which uses stem cells taken from the bone marrow of healthy adult volunteers to create its treatments.

"I need your help in Annapolis to cut through some of the politics," he told Osiris employees at the time, adding that it wasn't "an election year sort of thing" but a constant issue. Some read the appearance, however, as evidence that Ehrlich favored adult stem cells over the morally controversial embryonic ones.

Yesterday, the governor again bemoaned those who would "politicize" ethical issues in science

Though Digene doesn't work with stem cells, the disease the company focuses on has drawn some controversy, particularly a vaccine to prevent it.

HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that affects much of the population, though most types of it are relatively harmless. About a dozen strains however, can cause cervical cancer. Digene's test looks for those dangerous strains in adult women, which hasn't caused so much as a raised eyebrow.

But the recently approved HPV vaccine made by Merck & Co. has caused some conservative groups consternation.

They claim vaccinating against a sexually transmitted disease, even if it causes cancer, promotes promiscuity. Yesterday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended that girls as young as 9 be given the vaccine, which is expected to draw fire.

Digene, for its part, is pleased by the political attention and doesn't mind the competition from the vaccine, either.

It creates "more awareness of HPV," CEO Jones said.

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