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Pawlenty's plan for biotechnology
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Dr. Eric Wieben and a fellow researcher work with the help of a DNA synthesizer. They are on the frontline of the emerging biotech sector. (MPR Photo/Rob Schmitz)
Governor Pawlenty is talking biotechnology with officials from the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota. Mayo and the U want to combine efforts in biotech research. The alliance would be the first of its kind between the state's two leading medical research institutions. The meeting comes the same day as legislators introduce bills to create a biotechnology park. Despite the momentum, the state has a long way to go to catch up to other states in developing a biotech sector.

Rochester, Minn. — Mayo and the U have asked for the state's help in building what they call the Minnesota Biotechnology and Genomics Centers. The centers would be located at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus and at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. It would be the first step in an attempt to make Minnesota a national leader in biotech.

Biotech is the name for a business sector that has emerged from discoveries in genomic, or DNA, research. It's also known as biosciences.

The sector has huge potential.

It permeates everything from agriculture to pharmaceuticals and health care. The field promises many new products: from drugs that will help the body regenerate injured tissue to new types of rice and corn that will help the body prevent deadly diseases.

The Mayo Clinic's Dr. Eric Wieben is monitoring a machine the size of a microwave oven.

"This is a DNA synthesizer, and its capable of synthesizing 48 different pieces of DNA at one time," says Wieben, listening to the clicking machine.

With each click, a valve opens on one end of the machine, transferring liquid with pieces of DNA to incubators. The row of black glass containers look like root beer bottles.

"We aren't benchmarking Minnesota very often, because the conventional wisdom is not a lot is happening."
- Walt Plosila, a consultant for Battelle Memorial Institute

"What we're doing here is we're making specific little pieces of DNA sequence," says Wieben. "And these can find their way to a specific spot among the six billion base pairs of DNA we have in every cell."

Once that's done, Dr. Wieben and his team can make out DNA sequences that will help them understand a person's genetic makeup.

Of the six billion DNA base pairs in each human cell, one in 500 pairs is different from person to person.

Dr. Wieben is looking at these differences to help answer some very important questions.

"What are your chances in the future of developing heart disease? If we could do that with more accuracy, then we'd have the potential to encourage you to change your lifestyle now and reduce your overall risk of developing such diseases in the future," says Wieben.

Dr. Wieben says Mayo currently has an edge over other institutions in medical genomics. But he and his colleagues are concerned they'll lose that edge.

Minnesota is behind other states in funding biotech. Last year, technology consultant Battelle surveyed biotech funding state by state. The survey found Minnesota behind at least 15 states, including Wisconsin. Although it faces a $3 billion budget deficit, Wisconsin has given $317 million to a biotech development fund.

Minnesota doesn't have such a fund.

"It is an absolute race. The state or the region or the companies that first lock down the rights to the intellectual property around these developments will catapult over the rest of the states in the country in what will be the next economic revolution in the country."
- Governor Tim Pawlenty

Battelle's Walt Plosila conducted the survey. He helps Battelle identifies states that are making headway in biotech development. He says Minnesota isn't on his radar.

"We aren't benchmarking Minnesota very often, because the conventional wisdom is not a lot is happening," says Plosila.

Plosila says many states are choosing to fund biotech becuase it tends to offer good, high-paying jobs. He says the average biotech salary is much higher than the average private sector job.

Plosila says many states lack prerequisites to develop a biotech sector. He says all Minnesota lacks is a state-funded initiative.

"If you want to build a critical mass," he says, "the absolute prerequisite is, you need research anchors. That includes universities and academic health centers. And certainly Mayo is worldclass, so that's step one," says Plosila.

From an economic standpoint, the partnership between Mayo and the University of Minnesota makes sense. The two institutions are among the top thirty nationwide in money received from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

For years, Mayo and the U of M have competed head to head for NIH grant money. A partnership would eliminate that and get rid of any overlap in research.

The Mayo Clinic would contribute its research in clinical genomics.

The University of Minnesota would lend researchers in the biosciences as well as contribute legal and ethical expertise through its law school.

Mayo Clinic officials are encouraged by Governor Pawlenty's enthusiasm for biotech. They say they've met more times in the past several months with Governor Pawlenty than they met with Governor Ventura during his entire four-year term.

However, Mayo lobbyist Frank Iossi says many challenges still remain.

"Before this election it was a lack of political interest or will, and after election, the political will seems to be there, but now there's a lack of money," says Iossi.

Iossi says without initial investment, the state risks losing money in the long run.

"We won't notice it in six months or a year or two years," he says. "But down the line, its going to be very difficult to compete. This is one of two or three of the most important occurences in medical history, and I'm not sure that most people recognize that, that its changing the face of medicine. And those who don't get in and don't get in quickly are going to be left behind."

Governor Pawlenty has made it clear that the state can't afford to spend its general fund money on developing biotech. His stance on this has worried Mayo's Iossi, who says Mayo needs financial help to make the state a national biotech leader.

Relief may come in the form of a bill now before the legislature.

An effort to repeal the Minnesota Care Provider tax is currently underway in the house. The bill proposes to raise the cigarette tax by a dollar a pack to offset the revenue lost by eliminating the care provider tax.

Mayo has long been a vocal critic of the Minnesota care provider tax. It has paid $150 million for the tax over the past ten years.

Governor Pawlenty says he doesn't consider the bill a tax increase because one tax would offset the other.

If the bill passes into law, Mayo would save millions of dollars a year, freeing up more money for a commitment to biotech. Mayo officials are likely to discuss this in their meeting later this morning with the governor.

They may also discuss the governor's proposed initiatives to help spur economic growth in fields like molecular biology, genomics and agriculture processing. One initiative is to set aside tax-free zones to create and attract more biotech companies to the state.

After meeting with the Minnesota Biotech group in late February, Pawlenty outlined this plan with a tone of urgency.

"To put it in very blunt terms, it is an absolute race," Pawlenty said. "I mean, the state or the region or the companies that first lock down the rights to the intellectual property around these developments will catapult over the rest of the states in the country in what will be the next economic revolution in the country."

Legislators will introduce bills to establish biotech parks around the state. But none of these bills include plans for a state biotech fund.

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