Mass. finalizing life science bill

Legislators meeting with scientists and industry representatives to craft biomedical funding bill

By | July 3, 2007

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick continues to meet with academic researchers, biotech leaders, and clinicians to finalize the language of a new $1.25 billion biomedical funding bill, to be filed later this month. It remains unclear how the governor will incorporate the opinions of the 100-plus stakeholders who provided input on the bill at a recent meeting, but in general, the proposal appears strong, said Kevin Casey, senior director of federal and state relations at Harvard University. The bill is "very wise, very smart and very well crafted for Massachusetts," Casey said. The new bill will not address current restrictions on stem cell research put in place in 2005, said Kofi Jones, spokesperson for the secretary of housing and economic development, which co-hosted the meeting. That legislation contains some last-minute wording inserted by then-Governor Mitt Romney that prohibits the creation of embryos for research. The language of the 2005 bill is unclear, creating a "cloudy" picture of what research is legal within the state, said William Caldwell, CEO of Advanced Cell Technologies (ACT), a stem cell technology company based in California and Massachusetts. The lack of clarity has prevented ACT from pursuing somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) projects, Caldwell told The Scientist. But George Daley, associate professor at the Children's Hospital Boston, said he's been doing somatic cell nuclear transfer with approval and funding from his institution since May 2006. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health plans to wait until September to consider amendments that would lift some restrictions in the 2005 bill. Specifically, the DPH will debate whether to remove the following sentence from the existing bill: "No person shall knowingly create embryos or preimplantation embryos by the method of fertilization with the sole intent of using the embryo for research." Currently, Massachusetts has a "vulnerability" in stem cell research, said David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. States that are further ahead in decisions regarding stem cell funding "are attempting to poach researchers from Massachusetts," he said. The proposal is encouraging, said Rudolf Jaenisch at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he noted that it won't be clear how much of the money will go to fund stem cell research, until the legislation is in place. "Will [the money] be enough? I don't know," he said. "We just want to be on the same footing as every other scientist," in terms of funding, said Daley. One part of the Governor's broad plan to fund life sciences research, which he outlined at the 2007 Bio Convention, is to create a new stem cell bank to house the 30-plus new human embryonic cell lines that have already been created throughout Massachusetts. Of the total $125 billion proposed, $500 million in public money will go to building facilities and buying equipment, and $250 million will go towards creating tax benefits and incentives for life science research. Another $250 million of public funds, matched by the same amount in private sector grants, is slated for research grants, fellowships, and training initiatives. Officials said some of that money would support research proposals that received high NIH peer review scores but didn't make the cut. Another aim of the legislation is to fund proof-of-concept preclinical and early clinical trials, to make Massachusetts research more attractive to venture capital investors. Such money would keep great ideas from getting stuck in the funding "valley of death," said Brock Reeve, executive director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. The details of how it would be allocated haven't been worked out yet, said Casey. Patrick's biggest stakeholder meeting so far, and one of the last before the legislation is submitted, was held June 21 and included representatives from Massachusetts universities and hospitals, as well as private companies such as Genzyme, Organogenesis, and Oxford Bioscience Partners. One of the major points of discussion was how to create an effective oversight body to carry out the Governor's plan and make funding decisions, said Casey, who attended the meeting. Attendees suggested expanding the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, which would become the governing body for spending the proposed budget, from five members (its current level) to a larger, yet-to-be determined number of experts. To avoid some of the issues facing stem cell funding projects in California and New York, the Massachusetts initiative will not fund individual research projects, said Jones. Instead, the plan will focus on building infrastructure and facilities, she said. That infrastructure, said John Lacey, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, will position the state "to have access to federal funds when they do become available." Focusing on infrastructure will also free up institutions to fund more individual stem cell projects, noted Reeve. Researchers said they are looking forward to the creation of a stem cell bank, which will include details characterizing each cell line and instructions on how to culture it. "I think [the cell bank] is necessary for us to remain competitive," said Gary Stein, a professor of cell biology at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine in Worcester, where the bank will be located. "It's the first time I've seen all the [Massachusetts] institutions working with unanimous agreement." The Governor intends to submit the proposal into legislation as an addendum to the State's 2008 budget by the end of July. Once drafted, the legislation must be approved by the House and Senate. Edyta Zielinska Links within this article: Governor Deval Patrick Kevin Casey The readers and editors of the Scientist, "Cracking Cloning," The Scientist, June 1, 2007 C. Holden, "Scientists object to Massachusetts rules," Science, September 8, 2006 George Daley Massachusetts Department of Public Health stem cell amendments David Scadden Rudolf Jaenisch Deval Patrick's Life Sciences Initiative proposal The Harvard Stem Cell Institute Massachusetts Life Sciences Center G. Slack, "California stem cell program is legal: Judge," The Scientist, April 24, 2006. A. Gawrylewski "Stem cell funding in the NY pipeline," The Scientist March 26, 2007. Massachusetts Biotechnology Council Gary Stein

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