Another year, another disappointment for the industry that people keep calling the future of Maryland's economy.
Last week, the best hope for one of the state's top biotechnology companies became a bust. Columbia-based Osiris Therapeutics disclosed that Prochymal, its stem-cell therapy for bone-marrow transplant patients, worked no better than a placebo in patient tests.
Osiris stock fell by nearly half. The company founded in 1992 has never made money. It lost $150 million the last four years. It soldiers on nevertheless.
Osiris "is committed to making Prochymal the first stem-cell therapy approved" by the FDA, CEO Randal Mills told investors after the results came out, according to BioWorld.
Maryland biotech and biotechnology generally are having that kind of decade.
New investments from venture capitalists have dwindled. (This is true for all start-up tech ventures, not just bio.) State budget problems caused stem-cell research grants to be cut. Developers of a biomedical complex near the Johns Hopkins University are scrounging for tenants and rethinking expansion plans.
Much of this is temporary, related to the recession.
But even some of its most passionate boosters acknowledge that, over long years, biotech has not kept its promise. There have been too many dollars poured into the lab and too few effective products coming out.
Biotechnology got off the ground at about the same time Bill Gates founded a tiny company called Microsoft and Apple's Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were building computers in a garage. If anything, the ability to map and manipulate DNA seemed to promise bigger dividends than what was going on with microprocessors and data storage.
But if the personal computer industry had bloomed at the same rate as biotech, the first spreadsheet might have come out in 2000, and the Internet would be on track for a 2030 launch.
Aris Melissaratos, who oversees technology commercialization at Hopkins, made a lot of money in the 1980s on products developed by biotech pioneers Genentech and Amgen.
"Those were my first two investments in biotech. I've had about 40 others since. And none has come close" to being as profitable, he said. "My hope was that this decade of 2000 to 2010 would be the decade of biotech. I'm now thinking it's going to be slipping a decade or two. But in the nature of the business, you have to be a patient investor."
Biotech investors include Maryland taxpayers. They've invested directly in biotech through the Maryland Venture Fund. They've made millions in stem-cell grants. And they spend millions more financing the Department of Business and Economic Development, which has made biotech a foundation of its strategy to bring jobs to the state.
The idea is for biotech companies to develop blockbuster drugs, hire thousands of technicians and salespeople and, ideally, make the pills here, too.
True, there are successes. MedImmune, Human Genome Sciences and United Therapeutics are important companies. MedImmune just received approval to produce a vaccine against the H1N1 flu virus.
There just aren't enough of them. Most of the state's 400-odd bioscience concerns employed 20 employees or fewer each in 2006, according to a survey by the Tech Council of Maryland. With 23,000 employees, the sector was about the same size as Maryland's laundry and dry-cleaning industry.
The problem, of course, isn't lack of intelligence, foresight, leadership or even capital in Maryland or anywhere else. It's biology. People's insides are far more complex than those of lab rats or silicon crystals. That means bioscience breakthroughs need more time and investment to bear fruit.
"It's definitely a tough time for biotech," says James Hughes, vice president of research and development at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. "Biotech needs big infusions of cash and they need long-term cash, and there's just a whole lot less of that available these days. Another thing is that the whole health care debate may be holding things back."
Investors might be closing their checkbooks until it becomes clear how Congress will act on health care reform, he said.
If so, that's ironic. For all their frequent high cost, pharmaceuticals still deliver the most health for the buck. No matter what Washington does, drugs will have an expanding role in treating aging baby boomers and containing ballooning medical costs.
That's another way of saying biotech companies are more important than dry cleaners. This is one thing Maryland Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on.
Promoting biotech is the right call. We're making the right bets. It would be nice if a few more of them started paying off.