Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Southern Arizona bioscience industry is doing amazing things

[Source: Joe Pangburn, Inside Tucson Business] - Southern Arizona is quickly becoming one of the nation’s more recognized bioscience centers and a global leader in innovation.

This is thanks to the more than 100 companies in Southern Arizona’s bioscience industry that are doing some amazing things.

"We are the world leaders in providing systems to detect cancer in tissue," said Chris Gleeson, chief executive officer of Ventana Medical Systems, 1910 E. Innovation Park Drive, which last year was acquired by Swiss-based Roche Group. "[Roche] has effectively doubled our R & D spending. We are probably going to spend more than all of our competitors combined in the next year on tissue diagnostic research and it is all being done here in Tucson and Oro Valley."

Ventana Medical develops and manufactures diagnostic instruments and reagent systems that provide leading-edge automation technology. In addition, the company has premier workflow solutions designed to improve laboratory workflow efficiency.

Across the street, Integrated Biomolecule Corporation, 2005 E. Innovation Park Drive, contracts with smaller pharmaceutical companies testing raw material and finished product.
"We have the technical ability to take a pill and spilt it apart into its different parts and then measure each to tell you exactly whether or not you have 20 mg of copper or if you have 18 or zero," said Robert Green, president of Integrated Biomolecule. "We can also tell you how much lead, if any, is present in a substance. Which is especially important with raw materials that are coming from China and the recent lead scares."

Moving in as a new neighbor on Innovation Park Drive will be Sanofi-Aventis, currently at 1580 E. Hanley Blvd. along Oracle Road.

The Paris-based, global pharmaceutical company has more than 100,000 employees in more than 100 countries. The research arm in Oro Valley houses 57 scientists who are testing incalculable drug molecule combinations to see what may go together and has potential to require further testing.

"There are 10 to the 40th possible drug-like molecules and we would want to test them all to be comprehensive," said Ken Wertman, scientific director of the Oro Valley research site. "But if you wanted to make a milligram of each of those molecules, there is enough matter in the universe to do so."

Wertman said it takes around $1.2 billion and around 12 to 15 years to bring a drug to the market.

"That is the most challenging thing emotionally about this business; you plug away year after year working on a compound and find out after years of work, it isn’t viable and you have to go back to the drawing board," he said.

Years ago it would take a scientist a year to get through and research 1,000 to 2,000 molecules; today’s technology allows two scientists to look at 5,000 in two weeks.

We’re not just looking for a needle in a haystack," he said. "but we’re looking for a particular piece of hay in an entire field of hay."

Sanofi-Aventis made the move into Oro Valley because of the work of a few University of Arizona professors who began work in that field and were eventually bought out.

The university is a huge player in the bioscience industry in Southern Arizona.

The UA has become one of the nation’s top 20 public research institutions featuring a world-class faculty. The National Science Foundation ranks the UA No. 13 among public research institutions.

"Biotech companies have the most difficult path to emerging success than any new startup company," said Bruce Wright, the associate vice president for economic development at the University of Arizona. "That’s why having an incubator in place to nurture and support them through that stage is really critical."

The business incubator at the Science and Technology Park on the southeast side allows companies to come in and begin working on their business, products and devices and have access to laboratories for far less than it would cost in a stand-alone building.

"That is often the most expensive part of getting started for these companies and by letting them come in and grow, we increase their success rate," Wright said.

Wright said there is still a long way to go in the biotech commercialization infrastructure to make sure Southern Arizona plays a big role in the field. But he is pleased with the direction it is heading.

"With the kind of development happening out there, I think we are beginning to put the pieces in place that will allow us to compete for the attraction of bioscience companies and to grow and retain the homegrown companies," he said. "We’ve got a ways to go but I am encouraged that all of the major players in the bioscience field are now working together through the Southern Arizona Bioscience Steering Committee."

The Committee is made up of members from area governments, TREO, the university and members of the industry. They are working to advance bioscience in the area by bringing to light need and issues companies are facing and working to address them.

The university’s Office of Economic Development has mapped out as many companies in the area involved in the bioscience industry and is about to begin contacting them and finding out what issues they are facing in Southern Arizona. The map is available at http://econdev.web.arizona.edu/Biomap.html.

"We can’t be competitors in this," Wright said. "We all need to be working in a complementary fashion to advance bioscience in this area. I think if we can demonstrate that this is a community with an aptitude and an interest in growing biotechnology that will be helpful in attracting other companies into the region from around the world."

Also located at the UA is the BIO5 Institute. BIO5 works on bringing together faculty and other researchers from five disciplines to tackle complex biology-base problems affecting humans today, such as trying to address world hunger while preserving the environment, and diagnose, treat and prevent disease.

Another asset the industry has in Southern Arizona is the C-Path Institute.

C-Path works as a neutral third party with scientists from government, industry and academia to create and foster transparent efficient partnerships that support the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s efforts to identify methods that will better serve the industry in the rapid development of safe medical products.

The need for this was outlined in 2004 by the FDA itself. It is referred to as the Critical Path Initiative. The FDA called attention to the alarming decline in the number of new medical products submitted to them for approval, and cited the need for new methods in drug development. Only 16 new medicines were approved in 2007, one of the lowest numbers in more than two decades.

"We’ve identified seven new tests to replace two tests for the FDA that were 100 years old," said Ray Woosley, president of the C-Path Institute. "We want to serve as a trusted third party to enable innovative collaborations between government, academia and business. Companies like Ventana will tell us their secrets and we don’t tell it to anyone else. But when they are preparing to bring something to the FDA we can go first and say, we have not taken any money from this company, but we want to tell about this product and let you know the science is good on it."

With that kind of advocation and support, and the world-class companies located here, Tucson could become the Silicon Valley of the biotech world, at least developer Roger Ford thinks so.
"Silicon Valley was born out of two companies locating there," Ford said. "But the lure of being around like-minded people attracted all kinds of companies. That is what is going to happen here."

In preparation, Ford is developing Innovation Campus, just north of Innovation Park.
"Companies want to be able to move to a space that already exists, not one they have to build before they can move here," he said. "If you build it they will come."

There is certainly enough support for biotech, and Southern Arizona is well poised to become a leader.

Contact reporter Joe Pangburn at jpangburn@azbiz.com or (520) 295-4259.

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