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Around the Regions: March 9, 2009

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Bioclusters Eye Job, Economic Gains from Obama Order Ending hESC Research Restrictions

The nation's largest biotechnology clusters, and a smaller cluster with an established institute for regenerative medicine, on Monday projected their economies would benefit from President Obama's lifting of federal restrictions on human embryonic stem cell, or hESC, research, implemented in 2001 by predecessor George W. Bush.

In San Francisco, the chairman of the governing body of California's stem cell research-funding agency and Deepak Srivastava, director of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in San Francisco, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the Bay Area's numerous research institutes and life-sci companies specializing in the field will be able to tap into millions of new dollars for research — namely grant funds that the National Institutes of Health will make available under Obama's $790 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"We've been finally freed from the Middle Ages," Robert Klein, a real estate developer who chairs the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, which oversees the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, told the Chronicle: "There was this oppressive ideological blockade of the development of medical science."

The president and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center — the quasi-public state agency charged with overseeing the state's $1 billion, 10-year Life Sciences Act — told the Boston Herald that "We're going to see a lot of world-class scientists coming here to work."

"We are moving out of a long dark period, and coming into the light," Susan Windham-Bannister also told the newspaper.

Not so, countered Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.

"Taking the lives of young humans cannot be pronounced ethical simply because it might result in huge benefits to older, more powerful, or more wealthy humans," Pacholczyk — a neuroscientist who received his doctorate at Yale University and carried out postdoctoral work at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School before his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest in 1999 — wrote in the Pilot, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston.

The University of Michigan timed to the day of Obama's executive order an announcement that a new research consortium there plans to create embryonic stem cells from about 400 embryos already donated to the school for research, according to the Detroit Free Press.

"This is one of the many programs to stimulate science as part of stimulating the economy," Eva Feldman, director of the A. Alfred Taubman Research Institute at U-M, told the Free Press.

She said Obama's order, and the removal of hESC restrictions approved by Michigan voters last November [BRN, Nov. 10, 2008], will allow her to perform in Michigan research she had to carry out in California — creating embryonic stem cells with a gene change that leads to Lou Gehrig's Disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.


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New Haven Biotech Firm Wins $515K from Connecticut Innovations

Helix Therapeutics, a New Haven, Conn., biotechnology company specializing in developing therapies for HIV/AIDS and genetic disorders such as sickle cell anemia, b-thalassemia and Gaucher's disease, has won $515,000 from the Eli Whitney Fund of Connecticut Innovations, the state's quasi-public authority for technology investment.

The funding was contained within a $965,000 round that also involved LaunchCapital, individual investors, and a capital line of credit from Webster Bank. Helix is the first company to receive assistance through CI's Pre-Seed Support Services Program and then go on to qualify for investment through the Eli Whitney Fund.

Helix's technology, developed at the Yale University School of Medicine and licensed exclusively on a worldwide basis to the company, uses patented oligonucleotides that bind to the human genome resulting in permanent, targeted gene modification. Helix's proprietary TGM technology platform uses the cell's own DNA to permanently modify human genes, a process designed to result in a cure once a sufficient portion of the cells have been modified.

CI Managing Director of Investments Russell Tweeddale will represent CI on Helix's board of directors.


Canada Forms Two New Research Networks with Commercialization in Mind

Two new business-led, large collaborative research networks have been established in the Montreal area, with Canadian federal government funding.

The Canadian Forest Nanoproducts Network, known as ArboraNano, in Pointe-Claire will receive CAN$8.9 million ($6.85 million), while the Québec Consortium for Drug Discovery (CQDM) in Montréal will receive $8 million [$6.15 million] over four years from the federal government.

The Canadian Forest NanoProducts Network has the goal of building a new Canadian bio-economy based on nanotechnology products created from Canada's forests by forging alliances between the forest sector manufacturing industry and the aerospace, automotive, medical, composites, coatings, and chemical industries. Reinhold Crotogino of FP Innovations will serve as network leader.

The Quebec Drug Discovery Consortium brings together leaders of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, as well as the university and hospital communities, to subsidize Canadian pre-competitive research in the field of drug discovery. It is the first initiative from the Canadian life sciences sector designed to directly address creativity, productivity and industrial impact in drug discovery.

Established as a public-private partnership, the network is designed to bring biotechnology companies and the academic world into closer contact with pharmaceutical powerhouses, regulators and investors, capitalizing on the established cluster of life sciences in Quebec. Max Fehlmann will be network leader.

These two new networks bring the total number to four networks established by Canada's federal government, at a total cost of $39.2 million. A Green Aviation Research and Development Network in Ottawa, and a Sustainable Technologies for Energy Production Network in Regina were both announced in January.


Wisconsin Plans Two Grant Programs Totaling $2.2M Pegged to Life-Sci Job Growth

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle has announced his state will spend $1.5 million for "Opportunity" grants designed to help low-wage workers with no education or training beyond high school earn certificates or degrees and pursue career paths to jobs in biotechnology, as well as advanced manufacturing, health care, and other sectors projected to enjoy high job growth in coming years.

The state also plans to spend $700,000 for a second round of Emerging Industries Skills Partnership grants to meet workforce needs in biotechnology, advanced manufacturing, and renewable energy.

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Doyle said additional life-sci jobs could come as leaders of industry, labor, education, and workforce development in the state's seven "Grow Wisconsin" economic development regions form partnerships to identify workforce needs of high-growth sectors and develop strategies to meet those needs.

The partnerships would be formed under the new $3 million federally funded Wisconsin Sector Strategies Initiative, which Doyle announced at a March 5 meeting of the Milwaukee 7 Regional Economic Advisory Council — part of a total $5.89 million the state will spend on various job development programs.

During the meeting Doyle defended his administration's inclusion of several new business taxes in his proposed $62.7 billion budget for the two years beginning July 1 — including a "combined reporting" provision that would raise business taxes by $215 million over the upcoming budget cycle by requiring Wisconsin-based businesses to pay taxes on money made by their subsidiaries outside the state, rather than only those within Wisconsin.

The budget is designed to plug a shortfall projected at $5.9 billion in part by increasing the amount of capital gains that get taxed, projected to raise an estimated $181 million if passed; boosting the income tax for the richest 1 percent of taxpayers, expected to yield $312 million; and repealing a tax incentive for companies that keep production jobs in the United States, at a savings to the state of $72 million.

"Right now, I'm not prepared to cut the schools and cut the universities," Doyle told the Milwaukee 7 audience, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.


Virgin Health Bank Gears Up for Stem Cell Deposits at Qatar Science & Technology Park

Virgin Health Bank, a cord blood stem cell collection and storage company, has established a partnership with Qatar Science & Technology Park that will allow parents to have their newborn babies' stem cells collected, processed, and cryogenically stored.

Virgin Health Bank and Qatar's medical authorities would include the umbilical cord-blood stem cell bank as part of the country's national public-health program. The program would create what organizers call the world's first comprehensive source of stem cells for the indigenous Middle Eastern population, as well as make it easier for clinicians to source a matched tissue-typed stem cell unit when a transplant is needed.

Acting with the support of local health institutes, Virgin Health Bank said it expects to start storing cord blood stem cell samples within the next few months, The company, which was launched in the UK in 2007, will relocate its international headquarters to Qatar Science & Technology Park, where it will build a processing and cryogenic storage facility.

"The Ministry welcomes the Virgin blood bank because it increases the range of medical options available to Qatar's population," Ghalia Al Thani, Qatar's minister of health, said in a statement.


The Scan

Billions for Antivirals

The US is putting $3.2 billion toward a program to develop antivirals to treat COVID-19 in its early stages, the Wall Street Journal reports.

NFT of the Web

Tim Berners-Lee, who developed the World Wide Web, is auctioning its original source code as a non-fungible token, Reuters reports.

23andMe on the Nasdaq

23andMe's shares rose more than 20 percent following its merger with a special purpose acquisition company, as GenomeWeb has reported.

Science Papers Present GWAS of Brain Structure, System for Controlled Gene Transfer

In Science this week: genome-wide association study ties variants to white matter stricture in the brain, and more.