Md. companies vie in gene therapy raceAn interesting race...

LIFE SCIENCE

March 09, 1993|By LIZ BOWIE | LIZ BOWIE,STAFF WRITER

Md. companies vie in gene therapy race

An interesting race appears to be developing between two Maryland companies to treat cystic fibrosis by using gene therapy.

The competitors: Genetic Therapy Inc. of Gaithersburg, a well-established company, and GenVec Inc., which was founded just last week.

GenVec, based in a small temporary office in Rockville, has a solid financial and scientific foundation. It is backed by $24 million, including $13 million from Genentech Inc., and boasts the expertise of a top National Institutes of Health researcher -- which could make it a potent force in the industry.

NIH and the Food and Drug Administration gave Dr. Ronald G. Crystal, chief of the pulmonary division of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institutes at NIH, the OK late last year to begin the first human gene therapy experiments on cystic fibrosis patients. The deadly lung disease is one of the most common genetic diseases among Caucasians.

The first patients are expected to be treated soon, just as Dr. Crystal becomes a scientific adviser to GenVec and moves from NIH to the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center.

Genetic Therapy Inc.'s own collaboration is about to begin as well. Last week, researchers from Genetic Therapy and Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati received approval from an NIH advisory committee for a slightly different human trial. They still must gain FDA approval, but the experiment should begin this year.

GenVec can't commercialize a product from Dr. Crystal's first therapy; it will develop a similar one of its own. GenVec then must get approval for trials using its own system, perhaps putting it months behind Genetic Therapy, says Montgomery Securities analyst Charles Engelberg.

Meanwhile, Genetic Therapy and GenVec face other competitors. Since December, several other cystic fibrosis human trials have been OK'd.

About 30,000 people have cystic fibrosis in the United States, and about $900 million a year is spent on drugs for them. But Mr. Engelberg says a therapy isn't likely to be ready for sale until 1994, at the earliest.

High schools, firms partners in training

Feeding the biotechnology industry with a semiskilled labor force has always been a concern of the local business community. Biotech companies -- like lots of other employers -- have complained that high school graduates don't always have the basic skills needed to become good workers.

And some chief executives believe the growth of the industry in Baltimore could be hampered if there are too few well-trained technicians.

This fall, the city's high schools and Baltimore City Community College will try to address the issue with a new program that lets high school students take intensive training and offers them internships in local businesses and credits toward a college degree.

The "Tech Prep" program starts in 1993 at Dunbar and Southern high schools and next year at Lake Clifton and Eastern high schools. Eventually, it would be available to every high school student in the city.

For students who concentrate in biotechnology, courses would prepare them for jobs paying between $18,000 and $20,000 a year as laboratory technicians in industry or academic laboratories. But the students could go on to get a bachelor's degree, a master's or a doctorate in science or medicine.

Students would graduate from high school, for instance, certified with entry level skills for a lab technician. In addition, they would gain credits toward an associate college degree at the Life Sciences Institute at BCCC.

The high school curriculum has been designed by high school and college teachers to feed into college courses, said Stan Brown, director of the program at BCCC.

Life Technologies Inc. to offer fellowship

Life Technologies Inc. of Gaithersburg, one of the state's largest biotech companies, has established a $100,000 fund for a graduate fellowship in structural biology for University of Maryland students.

The two-year fellowship will be paid out at a rate of $20,000 a year to students who enter the molecular and cell biology program at College Park and who plan to carry out their graduate research at the Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology in Rockville.

At first, the fellowship is expected to be offered every other year. But if it is successful, CARB hopes to expand it with money from other companies.

The tuition has been waived by the colleges of agriculture and life sciences, where the students will study.

CARB is a research institution funded by the state and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Hopkins will offer master's for doctors

In an effort to train more physicians to do clinical research, the Johns Hopkins' medical institutions plans to start a new four-year master's of science program for doctors.

The program, which Hopkins says is the first of its kind, would help alleviate the shortage of clinical researchers created by the rapid development of new medical drugs and advances in biotechnology.

Doctors would learn how to design and analyze studies that are done on patients, rather than in the laboratory.

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