Competitive Edge

Our View: New Federal Rules On Stem Cell Research Are A Potential Boon To Maryland's Economy, But The State Must Keep Up Its Own Effort To Fund Biotech Science

July 08, 2009

In one of his first acts in office, President Barack Obama directed the National Institutes of Health to issue new ethical guidelines lifting the extreme restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research imposed by the Bush administration in 2001.

Those new rules, published Monday, aim to greatly expand the number of human embryonic stem cell lines available to researchers while ensuring that such cells are derived according to strict ethical standards. The new stem cell lines will have to be derived from leftover embryos created for in vitro fertilization, and donors will have to give full, informed consent for them to be used.

Those new rules will finally allow federally funded research to go forward on a wide range of illnesses, from autism to spinal cord injuries, whose cures so far have eluded medical science.

The shift in federal policy offers a potential economic boon to Maryland in particular, as a result of the state's geographic proximity to Washington and the deep ties between the NIH and scientists at the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, the Kennedy-Krieger Institute and elsewhere. Researchers at those institutions are sure to pick up a substantial share of the newly available funding, which will help keep Maryland at the forefront of efforts to develop this rapidly expanding field.

But the prospective federal windfall shouldn't tempt state lawmakers to cut back on Maryland's own commitment to funding biotech research, which it initially undertook to fill the gap created by federal rules that were so restrictive, they threatened to cut off promising lines of inquiry.

That funding has been the target of proposed cuts in Annapolis for years, particularly in the state Senate, and the combination of Maryland's dismal budget picture and the promise of new federal support nearly led to the gutting of the program this spring. Fortunately, negotiators from the House of Delegates were able to preserve all but $3 million of Gov. Martin O'Malley's request, leaving $15.4 million in available grant funding for the current fiscal year.

Stem cell research of all types is an economic engine as much as a science. Just as NASA's space program spawned hundreds of products and services, stem cell research holds the potential to bring thousands of jobs and start-up businesses to the state.

At institutions like Kennedy-Krieger, for example, where scientists focus on various neurological disorders, researchers relied on state funding for human embryonic stem cell research in areas where the limited number of stem cell lines approved by the federal government were either unavailable or unsuitable. Of the dozens of projects undertaken by Kennedy-Krieger researchers, only a handful were funded by NIH.

Maryland, North Carolina, California, Massachusetts and other states would all like to be the Silicon Valley of biotech, and any state that drops its funding now risks finding itself at a competitive disadvantage. Maryland's funding pales next to the support the federal government can give to the research, but the state must keep up its end of the bargain by continuing to invest in projects that will help translate the scientists' discoveries into spinoff businesses that could drive the state's economy for years to come.

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