Delays in state legislation hurt biotechnology research

A bill that would fund state projects will be postponed unless a special session is held.

Hayley Odom

University and Mayo Clinic officials continue to push for a legislative special session to pass a bonding bill that would further their biotechnology and medical genomics partnership.

The bill, which funds different state projects across Minnesota, will be delayed until the next legislative session unless Gov. Tim Pawlenty calls a special session. University and Mayo Clinic officials said the delay will damage their ability to become competitive in the biotechnology marketplace.

The partnership’s request from the bonding bill includes $20 million from the state to add space to the Mayo Clinic’s Stabile Building in Rochester, Minn. The University will own the building and lease it to the Mayo Clinic.

“It’s been laid out quite clearly that the economic potential for the state is enormous, but to achieve that we need the bonding bill for Rochester development,” Academic Health Center Vice President Frank Cerra said. “Without that it isn’t going to happen because there is no other source of revenue.”

Cerra said legislative funding delays will hurt the faculty’s ability to do work and delay the development of intellectual property and its commercialization. It could also result in the loss of grant money and escalate construction costs, he said.

The urgency to pass the bill stems from the space crunch at the Mayo Clinic’s facilities in Rochester, said Eric Wieben, Mayo Clinic Genomic Research Center director.

“The goals of the partnership are to beef up biotechnology in both institutions and build on our complementary strengths, but we need to have more space to become a powerhouse in medical genomics,” Wieben said. “The longer we wait to develop the new space, we will lose ability to compete in this area.”

Both institutions said the partnership will remain strong despite state funding delays.

“I don’t see this damaging the relationship – it damages the ability of the partnership to move forward and meet our mutual goals,” Wieben said.

Sarah Youngerman, an Academic Health Center spokeswoman, agreed and said the partnership’s research will continue to move forward until it financially cannot.

She also said that Minnesota’s governor, the House of Representatives and the State Senate supported the partnership.

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said the delay in funding will hinder the biotechnology initiative.

“Biotechnology is coming very fast and we want to be on the cutting edge, but by losing a year (in funding) you’re not on the cutting edge,” he said.

But some legislators oppose this funding of private institutions.

“I understand that there has to be a very close relationship between the University and the State Legislature – we’re responsible for making sure it remains a world-class institution,” said Sen. Brian LeClair, R-Woodbury.

“But I will also say I have certain qualms about the State Legislature picking winners and losers in the medical community,” he said.

LeClair said he is concerned about putting the Mayo Clinic in an exalted position because it is a private institution.

“The State Legislature should look very carefully at how many times we’re going to support the private sector as well as the public sector,” he said.

Cerra said the bill is not intended to fund a private institution – it is intended to fund the partnership between two sources of biomedical research in the region, which will benefit the state.