100 projects proposed to Md. stem cell panel

More are expected by Jan. 3 deadline

December 08, 2006|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun reporter

With a month left to apply for funding from the newly formed Maryland Stem Cell Commission, more than 100 projects have been proposed, all of them looking for a piece of the $15 million fund.

If the number continues to rise, it will rival the 300 applications that California received this year for its first funding wave of $100 million, even though Maryland's fund is relatively tiny.

"This is a big deal," said Linda Powers, a Bethesda venture capitalist and chairwoman of the state commission. "We got a way higher proportion of requests."

While final applications aren't due until Jan. 3, people were encouraged to send voluntary "letters of intent" outlining their plans by Sunday. In the span of four weeks, more than 100 such letters were received at offices of the Maryland Technology Development Corp. (TEDCO), which oversees the commission's fund.

"I thought we were going to be inundated," Powers said. "There's so much more activity that could be done than dollars available."

This summer, Maryland became one of a half-dozen states to set aside cash for stem cell research, which "could lead to unprecedented treatments and potential cures" for everything from cancer to Alzheimer's disease, according to the state's Stem Cell Act of 2006.

Politicians hope that the fund would help bolster Maryland's position as a biotech hotspot, lead to new medication and help companies and academics unlikely to receive other types of funding.

Federal money for most embryonic stem cell research was pulled in 2001 amid ethics concerns, and venture capitalists - the traditional source of funds for developing companies - are leery of much of the science.

"We're still at the early investigative stage of stem cells," said Mark Heesen, president of the Arlington, Va.-based National Venture Capital Association. "Once you get past the major investigational process, and there is an idea of what you can do with this mountain of research - how it can actually be made into a drug, then you will see the venture capitalists step forward."

Data provided to The Sun from venture capital research firm VentureOne, suggest funding for stem cell companies is in line with the rest of the biotechnology industry.

The difference is in the type of stem cell.

Of about three dozen stem cell companies receiving funding since 1999 - the year after the embryonic stem cell was first isolated - 15 percent work with embryonic stem cells or those taken from aborted fetuses.

Most focus on adult stem cells, such as those taken from the bone marrow of live volunteers, or those derived from donated umbilical cord blood.

Such cells "don't have the political baggage" of embryonic cells, said Michael J. Werner, president of the Werner Group, a biotechnology and biomedical research consulting firm in Washington.

The Maryland commission's 15 members have said that they will make awards to whichever projects offer the best science, regardless of the type of cell involved. As of yesterday, commissioners hadn't sorted through the letters of intent to get a feel for the types of proposals involved, Powers said, nor had they determined what, if any, details they will make public.

The Sun filed a Maryland Public Information Act request yesterday seeking further information.

"We need to take some internal advice of what's appropriate to release," said Powers, adding that the commission will not release the individual applications nor the names of the applicants.

Last month, the commission detailed two kinds of grants that it plans to award to applicants.

One of the awards is worth up to $200,000 divided over two years and earmarked for exploratory ventures by those new to the stem cell field. The other award is worth up to $1.5 million spread over three years. It's set aside for projects that have data supporting their validity.

Rockville's NeuralStem Inc., which works with fetal neural stem cells, applied for the latter award. If granted, the funds would be used to study the safety and dosing of a treatment for Ischemic Spastic Paraplegia, characterized by "paralyzing spasticity of the legs."

The company has demonstrated the ability to reverse such paralysis in animals and plans to file an investigational new drug application for its treatment early next year.

The state fund "is significant in terms of the actual dollars and also in terms of the perception of the public markets," said NeuralStem Chief Executive Officer Richard Garr. "This is not an outlaw industry, and states are getting behind it if the federal government isn't."

Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley has said he plans to add $10 million to the state's stem cell fund next year, assuming the legislature approves.

"I'm very hopeful that we will build on this first round of money," said chairwoman Powers. "Maryland has a very strong foundation - with both its universities and its private sector - in stem cells, and it has an opportunity to become a leader. But the window of opportunity won't be there forever."


Stem cell funding

Stem cell companies, which make up about 5 percent of the world's 4,400 biotechnology businesses, frequently say they are underfunded. But data for the last six years show such companies take in a proportionate amount of venture capital. Most of the money, however, is going toward companies working with ethically safe adult stem cells, rather than those taken from embryos or aborted fetuses.


Number Amount of all biotech

Year of Deals (in millions) funding

2000 15 $198.6 10%

2001 7 $39.5 3%

2002 6 $75.1 5%

2003 14 $143.8 7%

2004 4 $39.9 2%

2005 8 $139 6%

2006* 6 $87.6 4%

* First three quarters of the year [ VentureOne]

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