Columbia firm trains scientists in biotechnology Latest techniques are in demand

March 04, 1993|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

A Columbia biotechnology education firm run by a pair of Ph.D.s in biology went international last month, teaching Israeli scientists and doctors methods for studying diseases and genetic engineering.

Robert E. Farrell Jr., 32, and Gregory S. Leppert, 33, specialists in molecular biology, founded Exon-Intron Inc. in 1987 while graduate students at Catholic University in Washington. Last month, they ran two seven-day laboratory workshops at the Bruce Rappaport Faculty of Medicine in Haifa, Israel.

The workshops focused on the latest technologies in isolating, amplifying and studying DNA, the molecule within a cell that contributes to heredity. The research techniques can be applied to studying diseases and genetic defects, and correcting mutated genes through genetic therapy, in which a "good copy" of a gene is cloned and introduced to cells.

Through the research methods, scientists have developed products to combat diseases, such as diabetes, muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis, and treat human health problems. Products also have been developed to improve plant and animal agriculture.

The research methods also are used in forensics, in which samples of DNA from blood, hair, semen or other evidence at a crime scene are amplified using a special process and compared to samples taken from a suspect.

The growth of the biotechnology industry has led to an increase in demand for the training courses, the biologists said. The Howard economic development office lists nine biotechnology firms, which employ more than 800 people in the county, including W.R. Grace and Co.

An Israeli doctor, Shoshana Merchav, who could not attend an Exon-Intron workshop at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts last summer, inquired about bringing Exon-Intron to the Israeli medical institution.

"This type of training in the applied sciences is greatly needed in our country," Dr. Merchav said in a Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development news release about the training contract.

Exon-Intron runs about 10 to 12 weeklong training courses a year for doctors and research scientists representing pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, government agencies and universities at its Columbia facility in the Oakland Ridge Industrial Center.

The name Exon-Intron connotes the co-founders' expertise in molecular biology. Nevertheless, the firm gets calls asking about fuel, Dr. Leppert said.

"It's not a name that when you hear it, you know what we do," he said.

Among the company's clients are the National Institutes of Health and the Johns Hopkins University's medical school and hospital. The firm conducts about four training courses on the road each year and runs a summer workshop for graduating high school seniors who intend to pursue biology degrees in college.

Drs. Farrell and Leppert, who lived across the hall from each other at Catholic, began providing training in biotechnology in 1985 at the request of a professor who had a contract at NIH. They started their own company and provided training on the road until setting up their Columbia lab three years ago.

The workshops in Israel were similar to those conducted in this country, Dr. Farrell said.

"Scientists all over the world have the same type of concerns," he said. "They were a little greener there. . . . Here they've dabbled in it a little bit."

The roughly 50 Israeli participants showed "unbelievable enthusiasm," Dr. Farrell said. Exon-Intron has been asked to return in September for another training seminar.

"Evidently, there's no organized training like this," he said. "We got in on the ground floor. There was an incredible vitality for getting into the lab and doing this."

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