Biotech company seeks share of tobacco money -- Gazette.Net



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A Maryland biotechnology company is pushing for the state to expand eligibility to a pool of money from tobacco companies that funds anti-smoking and health programs.

20/20 Gene Systems Inc., a Rockville-based company, is requesting that $2 million in grants be made available for research into new screening and treatment methods that could lower mortality rates due to cancer. The money would come from the state’s Cigarette Restitution Fund.

By law, the $5.8 million in the $140 million fund that is intended for research and development goes to Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, according to Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Making money available to companies would require an act of the General Assembly.

“[Currently] independent companies working on novel diagnostics and therapies aren’t eligible for funding,” said Eric Gally, a lobbyist working with 20/20 Gene Systems, in a presentation Tuesday to the Joint Information Technology and Biotechnology Committee during which legislation to allow the grants was proposed.

The restitution fund is subsidized by the major tobacco companies under the 1998 Master Tobacco Settlement Agreement. Much of that money goes toward Medicaid and other health programs, but a portion goes toward smoking-cessation programs, cancer screenings, and research and development.

The company is proposing that the grants be administered by the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development Biotechnology Center, and that twice the amount given be repaid when a product or procedure becomes commercially successful.

One-third to one-half of Maryland biotechnology companies have some kind of project in development that would contribute to the effort to reduce health problems resulting from smoking, said Jonathan Cohen, president and CEO of 20/20 Gene Systems.

Cohen noted that his company previously has received state grants and tax credits through other programs, though he could not quantify how much 20/20 Gene Systems had received in state aid.

Gally said that the biotechnology companies would like the $2 million to come from funds that are not currently being used for smoking cessation and cancer prevention, but from the funds that are going to other programs unrelated to cancer prevention and treatment, like crop conversion.

“The question is whether there is a compelling state interest in detecting cancer and saving people’s lives,” Gally said.

Maryland’s lung cancer mortality rate from 2003 to 2007 was 53.5 deaths for every 100,000 people, according to data from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Center for Cancer Surveillance and Control. That rate is slightly higher than the U.S. average of 52.4 deaths per 100,000 people. Seven Maryland jurisdictions — Baltimore city and Charles, Cecil, Caroline, Dorchester, Wicomico and Somerset counties — have lung cancer mortality rates more than 25 percent above the national average.

“Obviously, if I had a magic wand, I would want to see all of [the programs] expanded,” said Sharfstein of the possibility for additional research and development grants. “Overall, the demand and need for services exceed what we’re able to do.”

In fiscal 2012, $14.7 million of the Cigarette Restitution Fund went to breast and cervical cancer treatment, which helped 3,200 people, Sharfstein said. Another $9.9 million paid for 6,000 screenings for other types of cancer. About $3.5 million went to tobacco education and cessation programs.

“We do see ways for the state to support efforts not just in the academic setting, but also through companies,” he said.

hnunn@gazette.net