Editor’s note: Allan Maurer’s BioWatch column is a regular feature on Fridays.Two factors doomed the proposed $35 million biotech training center initiative that the North Carolina legislature declined to fund in October.

Sam Taylor, president of NC BIO, state arm of the national industry lobbying organization, says funding for the proposed center was attached to a grab-bag economic stimulus bill and came too late in a troubled legislative session to pass this year.

Taylor, who spearheads the lobbying effort to obtain state funding for the center, isn’t about to give up. “We had strong support from the state senate, but it was new to the house,” he says. “They had a crisis a week in Raleigh for a long time.

“We didn’t have time to do the educational work with the house leadership and members. So they did not have any prior exposure to the idea when it reached them as part of the incentives bill in September.”

The center funding initiative was crammed into a grab-bag economic incentives package “widely known as the Christmas Tree bill,” says Taylor. “If it had just come across their desks as a biotech issue, I think it would have come out more favorably.

“With the package it came in, I think they just threw up their hands and said ‘we’re not going to deal with this.'”

Returning as stand-alone bill

Taylor says NC BIO has since had good discussions with members on both sides of the aisle, and while many members support the biotech training center concept, they were uncomfortable taking it up so late in the session.

“We’re disappointed, but not chagrined. We look forward to working on it for next year,” Taylor says.

He adds, “We doubt it will come out in a package bill this time. Next year our organization will try to find sponsors in both chambers to submit it as a stand alone bill.”

The NC Biotechnology Center, the Golden Leaf Fund, the Emerging Issues Institute at North Carolina State University, Biogen, and others express strong support for the training center idea.

“Our members have made it clear to us in no uncertain terms that they need this training center initiative,” Taylor says. NC BIO members include most of the state’s large biotech companies, including Biogen and Bayer among many others.

Taylor points out that “We’re in a window of opportunity here and it won’t be open too terribly long. This project would make a strong statement about this technology that would be viewed favorably by companies all over the world.”

The biotech industry faces a shortage of facilities to manufacture the new drugs expected to emerge from experimental trials in coming years. NC BIO and other supporters of the biotech training center idea say increasing the state’s pool of qualified biotech workers would help it attract some of those facilities here.

The idea, which the recently retired director of the biotech center, Dr. Charles Hamner promoted, is that the state should focus on attracting bio-manufacturing facilities, which create many good-paying jobs. Such plants, which are already located throughout the state, would spread biotech largesse statewide rather than just to the Triangle, the argument goes.

NC BIO Web site: www.ncbio.org

No tears at Inspire

Inspire Pharmaceuticals saw its stock price more than double this week after it reported a meeting with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration indicated it could submit a new drug application for its lead product based on existing clinical trial data.

The company was concerned, despite years of positive data on its treatment for dry eyes, which it says is an unmet medical need, because a late stage Phase III trial did not go completely as expected.

The first of its pivotal Phase III trials for the treatment did not reach its primary objective. Inspire’s stock tumbled 73 percent on the news earlier this year. The stock recovered when the company released more positive data from a second, ongoing Phase III trial of the treatment, soaring more than 50 percent on Wednesday.

Still, “It ain’t over til the fat lady sings,” is the common expression derived from Opera, and in biotech, the fat lady is the FDA.

While the FDA still has to approve Inspire’s NDA for its drug to treat dry eyes, the agency indicated current data is likely enough for that approval. The company submitted data from a Phase II study and two Phase III trials of the drug.

Inspire president Gregory Mossinghoff says, “This is a true breakthrough. The FDA never gives you a full green light at this stage, but the meeting was a positive a signal as you could get.”

Analysts have estimated the company could make from $400 million to $700 million the first year the dry eye drug is on the market. While Inspire’s stock is still distant from its 52-week high of $16.59. Inspire stock (Nasdaq:ISPH) closed at $5.80 Thursday, up a penny. It has a 52-week low of $1.94.

Inspire: www.inspirepharm.com