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Biotech Bizz: A New Model For Biotech Print E-mail
Written by Cory Hopkins
Monday, 12 November 2007

BMS plant in Devens is hallmark of paradigm shift

ImageIn 1944, at the height of World War II, nobody knew what biotechnology was. What they did know was that a funny little mold that grew on a cantaloupe had amazing antibiotic capabilities, and promised to save thousands of soldiers from death or amputation from infection.

The promise was enough to convince an established New Jersey pharmaceutical company called E.R. Squibb and Sons to open a massive production facility, the largest of its type in the world, dedicated to producing this strange little mold.

Breaking The Mold

And so was born penicillin, grandfather of modern biotechnology.

Today, that company, now known as Bristol-Myers Squibb, is building a new, $750 million facility at Devens dedicated to the production of a different biological agent, Orencia, designed to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

Instead of using mold from a cantaloupe, this drug uses cells from a Chinese hamster to produce a large molecule that stops the rheumatoid process before it starts. At its Devens manufacturing facility, BMS hopes to produce Orencia in massive quantities, through a totally organic process.

It is a state of the art process, to be sure, and promises to help millions (this columnist's mother included) suffering from the debilitating joint disease.

Joseph Tarnowski, senior vice president, technical operations, biologics manufacturing and process development at BMS, says the company's latest drug is the result of a new paradigm in the life sciences world, a combination of traditional pharmaceutical company dedication to patients and avant-garde biotech firms' creativity.

At a recent talk with the North Central Chamber of Commerce, Tarnowski said this merging of traditional pharmaceutical companies with traditional biotechnology companies into the "biopharma model" represents the future of the industry.

Tarnowski said that the biopharma model promises to meld the "nimbleness and creativity" of the traditional biotech company with the "dedication to developing products for patients" of traditional pharmaceutical companies.

In 1944, the wild new biologic agent from the established pharmaceutical company made Squibb very successful indeed.

What's old is new again.

Regardless of how you slice it, drugs are big business, whether they are derived from a mold on a cantaloupe or created in a beaker over a Bunsen burner. The biopharma model that Tarnowski champions, for all of its collaborative promise, is about making money. Making money by making better, more effective drugs, sure, but still making money.

Tarnowski estimated that by 2010, 25 percent of the global pharmaceuticals market will be biologically-derived drugs and treatments. IMS Health, a Conn.-based provider of pharmaceutical market information, predicts the total worldwide market for pharmaceuticals will be between $735 billion and $745 billion in 2008. Do the math.

If pharmaceutical companies promise to keep the patient happy, which most do, they also must make a promise to keep shareholders happy, to keep their valuation high and the development money flowing in.

To do this, said Al Prescott, president of Worcester-based Crescent Innovations Inc., who is in the process of developing his own biotech treatment, large companies must have a stable of products in the pipeline.
In the past, pharmaceutical companies would look for bizarre new chemicals or proteins in the natural world that they could break down,

synthesize, make safe, and sell, Prescott said. This was both wildly expensive, and somewhat limited. At some point, the well for weird jungle funguses with magical healing powers would dry up.

And so the "biopharma model" allows companies a new method of finding and developing new products. For all its promise of breakthrough drug discoveries, biotechnology's wonder-child, the discovery of RNAi, and the predictability and consistency associated with its process, also promises to make some companies a ton of money.

Tarnowski himself admits this. When asked how the new biopharma companies would fare in an environment already rife with mergers, acquisitions and takeovers, Tarnowski posited that having a strong pipeline of innovative (read: biologic) products was the best defense against takeover.

BMS, Tarnowski said, has four such biologic medicines already under development.