Board discusses funding strategies

Commission also avoids embryonic stem cell debate


THIRTEEN OF THE 15 MEMBERS — The newly formed Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission, which will allocate state funds for public and private projects, held its first meeting yesterday and agreed to stay away from political debate on the merits of embryonic versus adult stem cells.

Thirteen of the 15 members - two were absent - found another point on which most could agree: Their $15 million state-provided fund is relatively modest.

"We have a chunk of change. It may not be a lot, but it's better than nothing," said Dr. Jeremy Sugarman, a professor at Johns Hopkins' Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics Institute.

About half a dozen states have set aside money for stem cell research, and other states are discussing it, particularly after last week's presidential veto of legislation that would have allowed federal funding for new embryonic research. Many will be watching Maryland's commission to see what kinds of projects it finances and how well it works, members said.

Yesterday, the group - a collection of people from academic, religious, health, investment and advocacy organizations - also elected a chairwoman and discussed getting around their financial limits. Members tossed out ideas on how to attract large proposals that might get them more money from the legislature.

"We still have to earn a continuation of this program," cautioned Linda Powers, managing director of Toucan Capital, a venture investment firm in Bethesda.

Powers, who teaches life science technology commercialization for the National Institutes of Health, was the only member to volunteer for the chair. She was elected unanimously.

Her firm, which is working with the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development to fund early-stage businesses, has a dozen stem cell companies in its portfolio, three of them in Maryland. All but one of the companies work with the less controversial adult stem cells, but Powers said she supports both types of research.

At yesterday's three-hour meeting, held at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's business incubator, the group discussed the types of proposals it would entertain (ultimately deciding the broader the better), what kind of staffing it needs and how a scientific review committee should be chosen.

Decisions made yesterday include:

Allowing proposals for projects that last up to three years.

Planning a second meeting for September.

Setting up committees to develop bylaws and outline the request for proposal.

It was an anti-climactic start to a commission whose founding legislation has been the subject of political heat for months. But it wasn't without its fiery moments. The members, who didn't know each other well, interrupted each other to change subjects and generally jockeyed for opinion time on subjects each felt passionate about, including how to attract applications from the best talent.

Suzanne Ostrand-Rosenberg, a professor of biological sciences at UMBC, who was participating via speakerphone, expressed strong hopes for their work.

"We're at a pivotal point for stem cell research," she said. "I view this committee really as a very good opportunity to [fund projects] that, for really political reasons, are not being funded by other [organizations]."

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