By ERIN BRYANT
Capital News Service
CATONSVILLE - Scientists receiving state grants to conduct stem cell research will be required to share any stem cell lines developed using Maryland public funds with other scientists - a requirement that may deter private biotech firms looking to make a profit off new stem cell lines from applying for state research money.
"In some cases, it might be an issue [for private companies]," said Dr. Aaron Heifetz, Vice President of Business Development at Cognate BioServices Inc., a biotech company headquartered in Baltimore that is currently developing a proprietary stem-cell-based therapy for cardiovascular disease.
"It depends on what the cell lines are for and if there are other ways of protecting intellectual property," Heifetz said.
Stem cell lines can be worth big money. The commercial license for a proprietary cell line used to produce a vaccine can be in the millions of dollars. Fees for research cell lines, on the other hand, are relatively small, Heifetz said.
But for Suzanne Ostrand-Rosenberg, a member of the 15-person Maryland Stem Cell Commission, the group that will oversee the distribution of the $15 million research grant established for fiscal 2007, the decision to require cell sharing was an easy one.
"For a private company to withhold research results they got using public funds is wrong," said Ostrand-Rosenberg, who is a professor of biological sciences and chair of biochemistry at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"If their intent is...moving the field forward they should be willing to share," said commission member Diane Griffin, a professor and chairman of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The Maryland Stem Cell Commission cemented the requirement for new stem cell line sharing at a meeting at UMBC this week.
The research fund the commission oversees was created through the Maryland Stem Cell Research Act during the 2006 General Assembly session and scientists in both the public and private sector are eligible.
The commission's decision is "not meant to specifically discourage companies from applying" for state grant money, Griffin said.
The decision to apply for state research money will "depend on the individual company." Companies whose goal is to create a proprietary stem cell line to be sold for profit will as a result of the commission's decision now probably not apply for funds to develop the line, Griffin said.
Commission members acknowledge that enforcing the line sharing may be difficult.
Commission Chairwoman Linda Powers, managing director of the Bethesda-based capital investment firm Toucan Capital, said during the meeting that if it came down to it, the commission would "exert heat on the university" and a lot of "saber rattling" to get compliance.
Griffin agreed that enforcing the cell sharing policy may prove difficult.
"They may have good intentions and then they discover they have something really valuable," Griffin said.
Maryland's requirement for stem cell sharing differs from the National Institutes of Health policy which does not require researchers to share their cells in any way, according to an NIH official.
NIH maintains stem cell lines through the Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry and all lines within the registry were derived using private funds and are privately owned.
The federal government has restricted research to stem cell lines that had been created in 2001 so any research using new lines must be conducted using state or private money.
Maryland is among more than half a dozen states that include California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York that have approved public funds for stem cell research.
Under legislation that will go into effect in a month in California, scientists applying for grants must agree to share cells similar to the Maryland requirement.
In 2004, California voters approved a $3 billion fund over the next ten years and their program served as a model to learn from for Maryland.
In Connecticut, where the state's legislature approved $100 million worth of funding in 2005, researchers are not explicitly required to share stem cell lines developed using state money.
However, researchers must explain potential benefits to the state in their applications and will often promise to share lines, according to officials at the Connecticut Department of Health's stem cell research program.
While scientists using Maryland public funds for stem cell research must share stem cell lines, they have intellectual property protection and are asked to share intellectual property, e.g. their ideas and other intangibles, only at their own discretion.
Stem cells have the potential to become almost any type of tissue and hold promise for understanding and treating medical conditions from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease to spinal cord injury and rheumatoid arthritis. To develop human stem cell lines, adult cells are collected from the placenta or embryonic cells are taken from the inner mass of an embryo before it implants in the uterus.