Medical, biotechnology companies see applications in defense area

Demand expected for products to detect, respond to bioterrorism

Howard Business

November 26, 2001|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

In the wake of a bioterrorism threat that has become a reality in Washington and across the nation, two Howard County companies are hoping to become part of the nation's defense plan and secure a share of defense dollars.

Meridian Medical Technologies Inc., which offers nerve-agent antidotes in self-injectable devices, announced last week that it has received $6 million worth of new orders for its product. That's more than 10 percent of the total revenue Meridian booked in its last fiscal year, which ended in July.

And Cylex Inc., a biotechnology company, is awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration for its diagnostic tool, which the company says can quickly determine if a person has been infected with diseases.

Both companies say their products could increase the country's preparedness for biological attacks.

"Our product is the right response to a chemical threat," said James H. Miller, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Meridian. "We expect increased sales or increased need for our product."

Since last month, 11 people have been diagnosed with inhalation anthrax, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, presumably after coming in contact with anthrax from letters that were mailed to members of the media and Congress.

Last week, a 94-year-old Connecticut woman became the fifth person to die of the disease, and investigators reported that a suspicious letter addressed to Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy contained billions of anthrax spores. Investigators do not know who mailed the letters.

Because the first known case of anthrax exposure occurred less than a month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the events have raised awareness about the possibility of individuals or nations using bioterrorism to infect and kill Americans.

Meridian, a Columbia company that has primarily produced medical devices, has increased sales of its antidote auto-injector since last year, when it became a supplier for Metropolitan Medical Response System, a program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Emergency Preparedness.

The program seeks to help prepare emergency personnel in 120 metropolitan areas for terrorist attacks.

Last year, the company delivered its first antidote kits to Oklahoma City. James H. Miller, company president, had said he expected the "domestic preparedness business" to increase, but recent events have pushed sales to a new level.

"It's important," Miller said of the latest order for the devices. "It's more than 10 percent of the total revenue last year," when sales to the U.S. military and the MMRS program accounted for about 40 percent of the company's $58.1 million in revenue.

Previous orders through the MMRS program had been smaller than the recent one, which the company expects to fulfill by April.

Cylex Inc. also is injecting itself into the bioterrorism fray.

Judith A. Britz, president and chief executive officer of Cylex, said the company could use the same technology it developed under a 1996 federal grant to monitor the effectiveness of a vaccine for Q fever to also determine whether a person has been infected with certain other diseases.

Using only about one-fifth of a teaspoon of blood, the device, known as the Cylex immune cell function assay, measures white blood cell response to organisms such as smallpox or anthrax, Britz said.

White blood cells retain a memory of how to combat organisms with which they have come in contact. White blood cells that recognize an organism will respond more quickly than those that do not.

Although the device originally was designed to measure how well a Q-fever vaccine worked, the company has developed tests to detect the human immunodeficiency virus, hepatitis, Lyme disease and influenza. It does not have a test for anthrax or smallpox, the two diseases government officials are most concerned could be used in a biological attack.

"Its not a one-test-does-all, but we can develop tests for any disease," Britz said.

"The fact that the test works for HIV suggests that it should work for smallpox and anthrax," she said.

Britz said it has been difficult to gain access to the anthrax and smallpox samples that would be needed to create a test for those diseases.

Cylex's device has been used only in research laboratories. In September, the company submitted the device to the FDA, seeking approval to market the machine to measure the effectiveness of immuno-repressive drugs given to organ-transplant patients to keep their bodies from rejecting the organs.

Although the basic technology for the device does not change, the FDA would have to approve applications for each disease for which the instrument would be used, Britz said.

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