By Lesia Winiarskyj
In the midst of what was, arguably, the worst flu season in the last five years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in January approved a revolutionary vaccine made using recombinant DNA technology. Unlike other flu vaccines on the market, Flublok (which will be widely available for the 2013–2014 flu season) is manufactured without live influenza viruses or eggs—eliminating the need for antibiotics and formaldehyde in the production process.
Flublok uses cells from the ovaries of a caterpillar, reprogrammed to make a highly purified protein—hemagglutinin—associated with the flu virus. The cells’ ability to grow and divide indefinitely allows for accelerated, large-scale production.
Dr. Karen Midthun, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, says this cutting-edge technology “offers the potential for faster startup of the vaccine manufacturing process in the event of a pandemic, because it is not dependent on an egg supply or on availability of the influenza virus.”
Besides being a public health breakthrough, Flublok is also, importantly, a boon for Connecticut’s growing biotech economy. The new vaccine, together with an additive designed to reduce the duration and severity of influenza and prevent its spread, is a product of Meriden-based Protein Sciences Corporation.
“Fewer than one percent of the biotech companies on the planet get a product approved,” says Dan Adams, executive chair and global head of business development at Protein Sciences. “Ninety-nine percent of people who work for pharmaceutical companies never work on a product that gets approved. So we are really rare birds here. And we did it as a small company.”
Protein Sciences added more than 70 high-paying jobs to its payroll in the last 18 months—and they are not the only Connecticut biotech experiencing rapid growth.
Here We Grow Again
Cheshire-based Alexion Pharmaceuticals, which started as a small biotech in New Haven’s Science Park, has twice outgrown its space since 1992. Thanks to significant incentives provided through Governor Malloy’s First Five program—including urban and industrial site reinvestment tax credits, grants for laboratory construction and equipment, and loan forgiveness based on job creation—Alexion is combining its research, operational, and administrative headquarters functions into a single state-of-the-art facility in downtown New Haven, scheduled for completion in 2015. The company, which develops treatments for ultra-rare diseases, expects to create 200–300 new jobs in the state by 2017.
Similarly, Achillion Pharmaceuticals, which develops oral treatments to cure hepatitis C, is continuing to expand operations at its New Haven headquarters.
Over the past two years, Achillion has grown its employee base by nearly 50%, hiring highly trained personnel with regulatory and clinical operations expertise. That growth is likely to continue, says Senior Vice President and CFO Mary Kay Fenton, as Achillion announced last month the completion of a $142 million follow-on stock offering to support its future development plans.
“With an ideal geographic location between New York and Boston, New Haven has always been home to a number of emerging life sciences and pharmaceutical companies,” says Fenton. “We owe much of our success to the world-class talent available to us here in Connecticut, and to the bioscience cluster that is expanding in downtown New Haven and throughout the state.”
Leading the Way
According to Paul Pescatello, Connecticut—which is home to more than 500 bioscience companies—ranks seventh in the nation in the number of bioscience companies per capita and in total employment supported by biopharma. Pescatello is chair of the Bioscience Growth Council for CURE (Connecticut United for Research Excellence).
“The industry contributes over $14 billion to the state’s economy,” he says, “or about six percent of the gross state product.”
Recent efforts to recruit and retain bioscience firms and solidify Connecticut’s position as a national leader in stem cell research, genomics, and personalized medicine show great promise, Pescatello adds.
“The state is leveraging public-private partnerships, creating new and expanded facilities, and offering targeted incentive packages that will attract life sciences companies to Connecticut and keep them here once their products reach the point of commercialization.”
Examples of recent initiatives include:
- Governor Malloy’s proposed Bioscience Innovation Act, which would provide $200 million in funding to strengthen Connecticut’s bioscience sector over the next 10 years
- The formation of a new bipartisan Life Sciences Caucus consisting of state legislators from both the House and Senate tasked with supporting scientific innovation and the growth and expansion of bioscience through public policy
- Increasing the UConn Health Center’s research innovation capacity through facility upgrades, a doubling of incubatory space for bioscience business startups, and a $1.5 billion investment in UConn to support STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education activities
- Connecticut’s Innovation Ecosystem, a public-private partnership (with hubs in Hartford, New Haven, Stamford, and Storrs) to support high-value technology-based startups and stage 2 companies
“Simply put, bioscience is a wise investment that generates rich dividends,” says Pescatello. “This is especially the case for a state like Connecticut—a state whose assets are its patents, its intellectual property, its expertise in high-value-added R&D, and its talent pool—men and women ready and able to take the jobs created by bioscience, from lab technicians to lead Ph.D. scientists. Bioscience creates great jobs with robust benefits that aren’t easily outsourced. And no industry invests or exports more. The multiplier effect of each dollar expended—the ripple effect across the state’s economy—is greater for the biopharma industry than for any other.“ ■
Lesia Winiarskyj is a writer and editor at CBIA. She can be reached at email@example.com.