- Associated Press - Thursday, August 17, 2017

BOSTON (AP) - In his offices at Boston Children’s Hospital, Leonard Zon is busily developing cutting-edge stem cell therapies surrounded by fellow researchers, lab equipment and 300,000 striped, transparent zebrafish.

Zon’s lab - and the zebrafish - are the results of an initiative begun nearly a decade ago to make Massachusetts one of the country’s premier life sciences incubators.

That 2008 initiative, signed by former Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, committed Massachusetts to spending $1 billion over 10 years to jump-start the life sciences sector - attracting the best minds, research facilities and the venture capital funding.

By most yardsticks, Patrick’s gamble has paid off. Massachusetts, and the greater Boston area in particular, are now seen as a top life sciences hub.

For Zon, and other life sciences leaders, the support has been transformative.

In 2013, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, which is charged with distributing the state funds, awarded a $4 million grant to Children’s Hospital to help establish the Children’s Center for Cell Therapy. Some of the money went toward replacing the original aquaculture facilities at Zon’s lab with state-of-the-art systems.

Zon said the changes helped him pursue stem cell therapies - taking tissues grown from stem cells aimed at thwarting specific diseases and transplanting them into a diseased organ. Zon said his lab helped develop a drug for treating a blood disease known as Diamond Blackfan anemia in part by developing zebrafish models of the disease.

“Massachusetts is the best place in the world for biotechnology,” he said. “It’s been life-changing for us.”

Zon’s experience isn’t unique.

NxStage Medical, Inc., a medical technology company founded in 1998 in Lawrence focused on end-stage renal disease and acute kidney failure, received nearly $1.8 million in tax incentives through the program. In 2013, Woburn-based Bio2 Technologies received $1 million in loan financing, helping it develop bone graft substitute implants.

The state’s reputation as a magnet for life sciences also can be seen in the surge of construction in Boston and Cambridge, particularly around the Kendall Square area, where glass-lined office and research buildings have sprouted.

Travis McCready, CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, also pointed to the influx of grant money from the National Institutes of Health and funds from world-class academic and research institutions.

“By pretty much any measure we are considered the leading life sciences ecosystem in the U.S., and among the leading ecosystems in the world,” McCready said.

McCready said the 2008 initiative helped create a framework for that growth, even as he acknowledged that not every company or research effort that receives funding succeeds.

“Some of these startups are going to fail, but ideas will be tested and intellectual property will be created,” he said. “Failure is not a negative.”

McCready said a top goal of the program is to develop the next generation of researchers. The center funds over 500 life sciences internships each year with about a quarter of those landing full-time jobs at the company where they interned.

He said that talent pool is critical to the next stage in the life science revolution: bio-manufacturing and digital health.

Bio-manufacturing refers to the ability of research labs and life science companies to take their breakthroughs and start manufacturing them on a large scale. He pointed to a decision by Kendall Square-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals to open a 200,000-square-foot (18,580 square meter) manufacturing space in Norton, just 45 minutes away.

He said the state also is hoping to builds up the digital health sector, where large sets of scientific data are used to look for new therapies and how best to deliver those medicines inexpensively.

“Today we are the undisputed global leader in the field,” Patrick said this week in a statement to The Associated Press. “Public investment not only catalyzed hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment and created thousands of jobs, but contributes meaningfully to the development of life changing treatments and cures for people around the world.”

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker is hoping to building on the initiative.

In June, Baker announced a proposal to dedicate $500 million over five years to continue strengthening the life sciences sector with a focus on public infrastructure, research and development, workforce training and education.

Baker said he’s committed to “supporting the public-private partnerships and strategic investments that have made Massachusetts a global leader in the life sciences.”

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