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Around the Regions: March 2, 2009


Georgia State Senate Committee Rejects Gov. Perdue's Biotech-Tort Shield Proposal

The Georgia state Senate Economic Development Committee has dealt a blow to Gov. Sonny Perdue's proposal to shield drug and medical device manufacturers from product liability claims filed under the state's tort laws. [BRN, Feb. 2]

The committee last week rejected the measure, Senate Bill 101, by a 7-4 margin, after Sens. Seth Harp Jr. (R-Midland) and Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga) broke ranks with the panel's GOP majority, which favored the bill introduced by Perdue, a Republican in his second term, according to the Daily Report of Atlanta.

Perdue and his administration had promoted the legislation as an important show of support for the state's life-sci industry on the eve of Georgia's hosting the industry's largest annual event, the Biotechnology Industry Organization's 2009 International Convention, to be held at the Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta.

Harp was among opponents who criticized the bill at hearings [BRN, Feb, 23] by arguing that FDA approval is far from a guarantee that a drug or medical product is safe, since the agency turns over product testing responsibilities to private companies, then approves the results. He also cited the recent outbreak of salmonella poisoning that has resulted in nine deaths, and has been connected to peanut products at a Peanut Corp. of America plant in South Georgia. Supporters countered that the shield bill's provisions would only apply to products certified safe by the FDA once they leave the manufacturer's control.

Michigan's Three Major Research Universities Create 'Cluster of Innovation'

A two-year-old alliance between Michigan's three principal research universities — the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University — aimed at commercializing life sciences and other technologies across the state could boost the state's ongoing job-attraction effort, presidents of the three universities told attendees of a Detroit Economic Club luncheon, according to the Detroit News.

"The world has changed and so must we," Wayne State University President Jay Noren told the luncheon crowd of about 300 people.

Noren, along with University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman and Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon, said they plan to pick an executive director for the University Research Corridor, and set up a Lansing office for the group, later this year. The research corridor currently has no physical presence and exists only online.

The URC has untapped potential as a catalyst for economic development in Southeast Michigan, Noren said. He based that on the more than $1.3 billion in combined spending by Wayne State, U-M, and MSU on research activities within the research corridor. The corridor in turn spends $6.7 billion on operations, and directly employs more than 48,000 jobs, making it one of Michigan's four largest employers.

In Michigan, academic-private-government projects already underway include a $57 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study children's health, and the $3 million, 2,508 square-foot Stem Cell Commercialization Facility being built in Detroit, by Wayne County and the Wayne State research campus TechTown [BRN, Feb. 23].

"It's important to get news out about Michigan that's positive and to show that we can compete" with other parts of the country, MSU President Lou Anna Simon said at the luncheon.

Maryland Issues Request for Nanobiotech Applications Totaling $3M

Three Maryland agencies — the state Department of Business and Economic Development, the Maryland Technology Development Corp. or TEDCO, and the new Maryland Biotechnology Center — have received $3 million in one-time funding from the Maryland General Assembly for nanobiotechnology projects in the state, the Washington Business Journal reported.

The three agencies will award the money based on responses from nonprofits, universities, and private businesses to a formal request for applications recently issued by the agencies.

Applicants could win up to $250,000 for a nanobiotech research project running up to two years. The agencies said they are leaning toward collaborative projects between industry and academia, or between private and public universities, as well as those that can raise some additional matching funds.

To qualify, applicants must be based in Maryland, and turn in their letter of intent by March 13 and full proposal by April 17. Proposals could be decided as early as May, according to the newspaper.

The RFA is part of Maryland's ongoing effort to advance itself as a nanotechnology leader. But the amount of funding is slightly smaller than first envisioned when Maryland Senate and House of Delegate leaders introduced the grant competition a year ago, when they had backed a bill that promised $5 million in annual funding for nanobiotechnology projects. The state has cut funding for life-sci programs as part of an ongoing effort to contain costs due to the revenue shortfall that officials blame on the economic upheaval.

Two independent nanobiotechnology experts will get first glance at the submissions, and a review committee composed of the DBED secretary and four representatives selected by DBED and TEDCO will make the final decision.

NC Biotechnology Center Awards $400K in New Collaborative Funding Grants

The state-funded North Carolina Biotechnology Center has announced five winners of its collaborative funding grants, designed to help generate discoveries that corporate partners might commercialize. The awards pay for a postdoctoral researcher or technician in a university laboratory, and are jointly funded by the biotech center and the William R. Kenan Jr. Institute for Engineering, Technology & Science at North Carolina State University.

CFGs pay $40,000 to $50,000 to support the university researcher or technician who will perform projects of commercial interest under the guidance of a principal investigator. The university and corporate collaborator also contribute money to the project.

Three recipients received $100,000:

Kevin Anderson, a North Carolina State University professor of veterinary medicine, for work on a diagnostic test for identifying infectious bovine mastitis. He's collaborating with Advanced Animal Diagnostics, an eight-year-old Research Triangle Park firm that itself received a $20,000 Biotechnology Center loan two years ago.

Thomas Fischer, scientific director of the Francis Owen Blood Research Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for work combining recent advances in how to stop blood loss with advances in polymer and fiber science to develop an advanced generation of textiles for controlling hemorrhage. Fischer is also chief science officer at collaborator Entegrion, an RTP-based UNC-CH spin-out company started with a $150,000 Small Business Research Loan from the biotechnology center.

Lori Setton of Duke University for work developing injectable "drug depots" capable of keeping anti-inflammatory drugs within osteoarthritic joint spaces, in order to reduce the number of injections needed for pain relief, and to reduce side effects by keeping the medicine where it's needed. The technology is being developed in conjunction with Morrisville-based PhaseBio Pharmaceuticals. The Biotechnology Center provided PhaseBio a $15,000 Business Development Loan in 2002, a $75,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Bridge Loan in 2005 and a $150,000 Small Business Research Loan in 2006 to help it develop its novel drug-delivery technology.

Two recipients were approved for $50,000:

Claudia Gunsch of the Duke University Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, to support the assistant professor's research in biological wastewater treatment, in collaboration with Entex Technologies of Chapel Hill. Gunsch and Entex are collaborating on experiments at the South Durham Water Reclamation Facility to improve wastewater treatment efficiency. The research will include removal of potentially hazardous and increasingly worrisome endocrine disruptors that may be sneaking into the environment from unused medicines flushed down toilets and from the urine of women taking birth-control pills.

Sheila Collins of the Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences, for her work in collaboration with RTP-based Zen-Bio on a better understanding of obesity. Zen-Bio, which has received $235,000 in loans from the Biotechnology Center since forming in 1995, was recently awarded a $1.88 million Phase II SBIR grant to help it commercialize its line of synthetically grown human cells for use by scientists studying obesity, diabetes, and common cancers.

The biotech center said it will announce in the spring winners of its latest round of CFG grants, now under evaluation. Recipients will be announced this spring.

Business Consultant: Space, Taxes Will Determine if Calif.'s Solano County Can Sustain Life-Sci Growth of 2000-06

California's Solano County should continue to experience sharp growth in its life sciences industry, the head of a business consulting firm told a crowd of 100 attendees at a Solano Economic Development Corp. breakfast, according to the Reporter of Vacaville, Calif.

Doug Henton, chairman and CEO of Collaborative Economics, cited figures showing 35 percent annual employment growth between 2000 and 2006, far outpacing annual life-sci employment growth in the rest of the Bay Area. Henton also cited double-digit average life-sci wage growth in Solano County. Life science wages have risen 30 percent since 2000, with $78,300 as the annual average income in 2006 (in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars). Still, Solano's average annual wage was well below the Bay Area and state averages, at $112,900 and $95,600, respectively.

The industry's ability to sustain that rate of growth, Henton added, will hinge on the ability of Solano to offer adequate R&D and manufacturing space — as well as how well elected officials "consider how tax policies could support continued growth of life science companies," the newspaper reported.

"Tax policies must be sensitive to industry need," he added. "We want them (the companies) to invest and innovate, so tax policies need to take those needs into consideration."

He also stressed the need for local firms to develop relationships with major research institutions — such as Touro University on Mare Island and the University of California, Davis, and Berkeley. He also cited Solano Community College's biotechnology program as a source of future employees, especially those seeking to be biological or chemical technicians.

Henton said the region should see additional funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Obama's economic stimulus measure, because of its additional $10 billion in funding for National Institutes of Health grants. Between 2002 and 2008, the county received $3.4 million in grants from NIH, a 68 percent increase in funding over the previous seven years, he noted.

Solano County's life-sci industry consists of some 40 companies, anchored by drug manufacturing facilities of biotech giant Genentech and pharma companies Alza and Novartis.

Hong Kong Stimulus Package Boosts Funding for Life-Sci Laboratories

Hong Kong Financial Secretary John Tsang said two new biotechnology laboratory buildings at the Hong Kong Science Park's Phase 2 will be commissioned in April, creating a new biotechnology cluster within the science campus.

The development of Phase 3 of the park is now under study to meet demand from economic restructuring and enterprises' for research facilities, he added in an address accompanying his issuing of Hong Kong's HK$300 billion (US$39 billion) budget for 2009-10.

Tsang said more than 250 local and overseas research institutes have set up offices within Science Park, with a combined total of more than 6,000 technology-related jobs, and annual revenues of about $70 billion.

"These institutes have made significant contributions to enhancing the competitiveness of our industries and broadening the base of our economy," Tsang said.