Scientist resists pull of politics on stem cells
Governor tours the Fells Point headquarters of Osiris Therapeutics, sees 'powerful' images of new treatments
By Tricia Bishop
Sun reporter
Originally published February 10, 2006

As the debate rages in Annapolis over state funding for stem cell work, Osiris Therapeutics has largely managed to avoid the fray. This, despite the fact that the Baltimore drugmaker is thought to be the only company in the nation with a commercialized product derived from stem cells.

But that all changed this week when the governor came calling on the company in Fells Point as a backdrop to advocate his initiatives. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced plans last month to provide millions for stem cell research, although an economic aide briefly caused a stir by mistakenly suggesting the program favored non-embryonic research, echoing a larger national political controversy.

"The idea that we could be part of a controversy is disturbing to me," said Osiris Chief Executive Officer C. Randal Mills, who has declined to support any of the stem-cell funding proposals under discussion even though he's been asked to by various sides. "We are not a political organization."

Still, Mills welcomed the opportunity to promote his company's technology to the governor. "It's a good opportunity to educate the governor," he said.

State funding for research into stem cell treatments, said to be key to curing some of the world's most perplexing diseases, has been an issue for years. One side supports research into embryonic stem cells, believed to have great scientific promise because of their ability to transform into many other types of cells. Others favor research into stem cells donated from adults, which have more limited uses but have been shown to save lives and don't raise ethical issues associated with embryonic cells.

In his budget proposal for the coming fiscal year, Ehrlich set aside $20 million for stem cell research, but he doesn't say what kind, and critics fear the focus will be solely on the adult version. Democratic legislators submitted alternate plans for a five-year, $125 million funding of stem cell research with a focus that includes embryonic cells.

While it would not be an issue for Mills to simply say he supports research funding of any kind, he's been leery of doing so, he said. That is partly because he finds the current political rhetoric "disturbing," but also because the amounts being bandied about, to him, are unimpressive.

"The amount they're talking about is relatively small compared to the amount we're planning on spending this year," Mills said.

Osiris uses stem cells taken from the bone marrow of adult volunteers and develops them into treatments for damaged hearts, osteoarthritis, transplant rejection and bone loss. Its Osteocel treatment, a bone-regenerating therapy, was recently approved for sale. Biotechnology industry analysts regard it as the first stem cell product on the market, of the adult version.

An hour before the governor was due to arrive Wednesday, Mills was calm and confident, having just finished a photo shoot with a freelance photographer the company hired to document the event. But soon, his demeanor would grow slightly anxious.