Biotech's New Economy plant

Foundation: MedImmune, a biopharmaceutical manufacturer, is a prime example of Maryland's effort to become a force in the production of biological drugs.

September 24, 2000|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK - Deep inside a spotless biopharmaceutical plant off Interstate 70, Marco A. Cacciuttolo is performing one of the daily rites of a soldier in Maryland's New Economy. He is getting dressed for work, something he does several times a day.

Cacciuttolo has a doctorate in biochemical engineering. He oversees the college-educated MedImmune Inc. workers who daily tend to the delicate nurturing of a living soup from which, after a matter of weeks, a vaccine will be harvested.

Balanced on one leg, he hunches over coveralls that he has just ripped from a plastic bag stored on a shelf in a small anteroom. The trick, he tells a visitor, is to get the coveralls on without letting any part of them touch the ground. Doing so might allow tiny particles of dirt into the sealed area in which MedImmune's Synagis vaccine is being produced, something that could ruin it. Synagis fights a respiratory infection in infants.

"You grab the wrist and the knee," he says. "Then you do the same for the other side."

Keeping its vaccine contaminant-free is a virtual obsession at MedImmune, a biopharmaceutical manufacturer the state champions as a prime example that its efforts to make Maryland a powerhouse of drug production are bearing fruit. The effort has been the subject of much hand-wringing over the past decade, with critics lamenting that the state had so far failed to turn its concentration of biotech research jobs - many of them at government laboratories such as the National Institutes of Health - into a foundation for companies that make biological drugs.

MedImmune built its $50 million plant with the help of $13 million in state and local incentives, a package that persuaded Gaithersburg-based MedImmune, which was being wooed by Cleveland, to build its first plant in the state. The plant won Food and Drug Administration approval in December.

Other Maryland biotech companies that are significantly expanding manufacturing this year include Human Genome Sciences Inc., which makes experimental gene-based drugs, and contract manufacturer BioReliance Corp., both in Rockville. But even with these successes, the state's figures show that Maryland has ground to make up if it wants to achieve significant job growth in the industry. Maryland had fewer jobs at biotechnology companies in 1998 - the last year for which figures were available - than it did in 1993, according to a study released this month by the state Department of Business and Economic Development.

Private industry employment, including biotech manufacturing, peaked at 18,304 jobs in 1993, dropped nearly 19 percent over the ensuing three years to bottom out at 14,847 in 1996, and then rebounded to nearly 16,000 two years later, according to the study.

Department Secretary Richard C. Mike Lewin called the job figures in his department's report "improbable at best" and said they didn't include jobs at bioinformatics companies such as Celera Genomics Group, which was formed in 1998 to use computers to map the human genome. All told, the department has assisted biotech companies that created an estimated 2,300 jobs over the past two to three years alone, Lewin said.

Report author Fereidoon "Fred" Shahrokh, a department economist, said jobs lost when companies such as American Type Culture left the state, and increased efficiencies at existing companies, might explain the decline.

While it is far from clear how the number of jobs could drop so precipitously while the number of biotech companies in the state rose (from 319 in 1988 to 510 two years ago, according to Shahrokh), MedImmune is an example of how companies can eliminate the need for more jobs by improving productivity. The company was designing an increase in manufacturing capacity at an estimated cost of $50 million to $80 million when it made breakthrough improvements in its existing manufacturing processes, said James F. Young, executive vice president of research and development.

"Because we made the improvements, we don't need to do that," he said of a plant expansion.

Edward A. Goley, vice president in charge of the Frederick plant, said MedImmune's scientists found ways to optimize conditions for the cells in its nutrient-laden soup, leading them to produce more of the vaccine.

"We're talking about living systems," Goley said, explaining that the vaccine-producing cells have respiratory rates and must get the right amounts of food, oxygen and space to grow and divide. "It's like growing up in the country vs. New York City."

The plant also illustrates why the state has targeted biotech for growth: It has produced high-paying jobs.

MedImmune employs about 170 people on its Frederick campus, including warehouse workers and administrators - about 20 more than it initially estimated.

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