The DMV region's life sciences sector jumped into the fight against COVID-19. Here's why it could move quickly - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Apr. 7, 2020 5:25 pm

The DMV region’s life sciences sector jumped into the fight against COVID-19. Here’s why it could move quickly

The region's collective activity has already identified a name: the BioHealth Capital Region. Here's a look at how the mix of research centers, government institutions and companies form a foundation that's been bringing economic growth — and maybe a vaccine.
Life sciences.

Life sciences.

(Photo via Shutterstock.com)

A new coronavirus was spreading in the U.S., and with social distancing orders going into place, talk immediately turned to finding a treatment that could stop the spread.

In Maryland, companies jumped into action. Work began on a vaccine at Gaithersburg-based Novavax, and the company partnered with Emergent Biosolutions on initial development and manufacturing. Gaithersburg’s Altimmune is also developing a vaccine, and announced plans last week for a preclinical testing collaboration with the University of Alabama Birmingham.

In all, Maryland Tech Council President Marty Rosendale now counts 28 Maryland companies working on the response in some form, whether they are developing new vaccines, therapeutics and tests, or providing lab space and clinical expertise that’s key to bringing those forward. And a collaborative spirit is taking root.

“This is about getting the job done,” said Rosendale, who is connecting companies whether they are members of his organization or not. “This is about making sure that we build these vaccines and diagnostics and get them cleared by the FDA as fast as we can and get out there and serve the public.”

As the race against the virus is on among scientists and CEOs, it’s worth it for the rest of us to take a moment to remember that the ability to spin up operations that can develop life-saving treatments doesn’t get built overnight. That manufacturing center from Emergent Biosolutions in Baltimore’s Bayview? It was already established as one of three federal centers to make new products to stop public health threats, and doubled in size in 2017.

With the need for years of research, lab space and stringent requirements to meet safety since they’re creating things that are put into people’s bodies, life sciences and biotech work takes longer to roll up to the general public. Equally, the region is home to work in biotech and life sciences that has developed over decades, and it has been gaining more and more influence in recent years.

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It’s also at the center of some of the most groundbreaking work to advance human ingenuity in the region — and save lives. And, economically, it’s been home to some of the biggest news about M&A activity, venture capital and job growth.

Structured for success

When it comes to growing industries, the life sciences sector is among the most impactful in the area. Spanning hospital research labs and manufacturing centers where production takes place, harnessing living cells to create new treatments and other biotech, biomedical and pharma work is happening in a footprint that knits together Baltimore, the Maryland suburbs, D.C. and Northern Virginia.

It’s an area that is home to key assets. That includes federal government institutions where research needs are identified such as the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health, the White Oak-based U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Gaithersburg-based National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), while Frederick-based Fort Detrick is home to a base of biomedical work.

Funding from those institutions flows to universities such as Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, where experts and faculty advance research. The response to the crisis offered an example of the leadership role, as noted Hopkins infectious disease expert Arturo Casadevall is leading a collaboration among research centers to explore the potential use of blood plasma from COVID-19 survivors as a therapeutic. The effort was funded to the tune of $4 million by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the State of Maryland, officials said in late March. By last week, the FDA approved a clinical trial that will allow researchers to tell whether the plasma is effective in protecting healthcare workers and first responders.

"We are very fortunate that Maryland has some of the top health research facilities in the world, and I am confident in our state's ability to be a leader in developing treatments and perhaps even a vaccine for COVID."
Gov. Larry Hogan

“We are very fortunate that Maryland has some of the top health research facilities in the world, and I am confident in our state’s ability to be a leader in developing treatments and perhaps even a vaccine for COVID-19,” Gov. Larry Hogan said in a statement issued when the announcement was made.

Emergent, too, is working on a plasma-derived therapy that collects donations of plasma from people who recovered. On April 2, the company was awarded $14.5 million from the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and was entering into a formal partnership to advance its treatment for severe hospitalized patients and at-risk people. Going forward, NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has agreed to incorporate the candidate into future clinical studies of COVID-19 treatments.

Though it is applying to a new coronavirus, the company’s work on plasma therapy didn’t just start. It is drawing on 40 years of experience working with plasma-derived therapies, said CEO Robert G. Kramer Sr.

Universities also help to get those discoveries to the public, establishing patents and nurturing startups and helping hospital systems offer places to gain new insight in the clinic. And at a collection of publicly traded companies born inside the state and big firms that moved here like GSK and AstraZeneca, work goes on to turn innovations hatched at research labs into products that can be made available widely to the public.

“The biohealth industry is one of the top industrial clusters and very important to the Maryland economy,” said Richard A. Bendis, president and CEO of Rockville-based BioHealth Innovation Inc.

Manufacturing new jobs

The collective activity has already identified a name: the BioHealth Capital Region. And there’s an ambitious goal: to be one of the top three hubs in the nation for biohealth by 2023. (For context, it was #4 last year, according to a ranking released by GEN.)

But even in the shorter term, there are signs of a new wave of activity that’s having an impact everywhere in one metric that matters locally on the ground: job growth. Specifically, that’s playing out as companies seek the facilities to make products in the state, and the people who can run the operation.

"As the Maryland life sciences industry matures and moves further into clinical development and commercialization, the demand for manufacturing is growing."
Marty Rosendale, Maryland Tech Council

“As the Maryland life sciences industry matures and moves further into clinical development and commercialization, the demand for manufacturing is growing,” Rosendale said.

One of the largest exits of the decade arrived heralded from the sector in April 2019, when Catalent acquired Baltimore-based Paragon Bioservices. The $1.2 billion deal came just days after Paragon opened a new manufacturing center near BWI and made big plans to grow hundreds of jobs locally, and the newly branded Paragon Gene Therapy has continued to hire there and at other facilities like its University of Maryland BioPark HQ.

The same month, Gilead’s Kite Pharma announced plans of its own to create jobs in the region with a forthcoming biologics manufacturing facility in Frederick County.

Longtime companies in the area have also opened their own manufacturing facilities. Gaithersburg-based Emergent Biosolutions has a pair of plants in Baltimore where it makes vaccines and recently expanded, while Precigen (formerly Intextron) opened its own gene and cell therapy-focused space in Germantown last year.

The maturity can also be measured in investment: Frederick-based Rooster Bio and BioFactura each made plans to ramp up production with second rounds of funding.

At the same time, Rosendale said, “the next generation of life science companies are now beginning to move out of the incubators and into clinical development.” Viela Bio spun out of longtime regional stalwart MedImmune (owned by AstraZeneca) and made a splash with a debut on the public market in 2019.

Life sciences is often listed alongside cybersecurity as a growing industry in the state, and they face similar situations when it comes to workforce needs.

And there are signs that it makes sense to plant seeds for future growth in facilities like the two-year-old Johns Hopkins’ Fast Forward 1812 in East Baltimore and LifeBridge Health Bioincubator at Sinai Hospital in North Baltimore, as well as plans for a new BioPark building along MLK Boulevard in Southwest Baltimore and the forthcoming JLABS space from Johnson & Johnson Innovation and the Children’s National Health System in D.C.

The wave of growth has brought a job dynamic that has folks looking to fill roles, as well as orders.

“Unemployment in the sector is at an all-time low, while the demand for skilled workforce in the sector continues to grow,” Rosendale said.

Life sciences is often listed alongside cybersecurity as a growing industry in the state, and they face similar situations when it comes to workforce needs.

“With more and more companies advancing their pipelines and seeing success, there is demand across the life science continuum for talent,” said Chris Frew, CEO of BioBuzz Media and Workforce Genetics. “Especially in the later stage clinical and commercialization fields. Biomanufacturing is in great demand and there are lots of jobs, process engineers are also in demand and hard to find.”

The state draws bonafides in the industry from a large cluster of Ph.D.s. And, to be sure, there’s room for highly educated experts to have a role in shaping a company. Bendis said tighter alignment between industry and academia to shape curricula and more education on what jobs are available for postdocs who want to stay in the region can help.

And when it comes to the demands of processing and manufacturing, educated folks are needed at many levels.

“The running joke with my colleagues is if you can tell the difference between a eukaryote and prokaryote, you’re hired,” Ben Woodard, who leads an effort to train students at the Biotechnology Research and Education Program at the University of Maryland in College Park, told us prior to the pandemic in early March. (The program is currently working to roll out remote offerings since most lab research at the university has been halted). “There are more jobs than people … and the ultimate goal is to help healthcare.”

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