A university laboratory that helps science careers and companies flourish has gotten a boost of its own.

Cultivating a biotech boom

October 22, 2004|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

Tucked deep inside a College Park facility is a laboratory that has been quietly feeding the region's biotechnology future for two decades.

The University of Maryland Bioprocessing Scale-Up Facility - or BSF - has transformed countless numbers of students into sought-after biotech recruits, trained hundreds of workers through customized workshops and helped scores of local companies understand the processes required to transform a concept into a product that can be churned out on a large scale.

Now the facility has gotten a boost of its own - a state grant of $775,000 that has allowed it to modernize equipment and add to its menu of offerings. Before the update the BSF could use fermentation to grow only simple bacteria, said Edward Sybert, the BSF's industry director. But now it can grow greater quantities of more sophisticated cell types, and it can also purify the resulting biotech product, usually a protein.

"We think that we've got the tools to continue to help grow Maryland's biotechnology industry," Sybert said.

The Bioprocessing Scale-Up Facility does just what its name suggests: Users can take a product that has been made in very small quantities, perhaps only on the work bench in a lab, and design a process that will allow these researchers to "scale up" production so that larger quantities can be more easily made. It doesn't always work. But when success comes, and the answer found, it can launch a company's future - as it did with Columbia-based Martek Biosciences Corp., which found a way to extract nutrients from algae it grows through fermentation.

Today, Martek is a rarity - not just for Maryland, but for the industry in general: It's a profitable biotechnology company whose nutrients - which have been linked to babies' brain and eye development - are found in 70 percent of baby formula sold in the United States.

But a dozen years ago, said Martek Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Henry "Pete" Linsert Jr., all the company knew was that it had this "fermentable algae," but it had no real idea how to make it - let alone mass-produce it.

"Not many people knew much about what we were trying to do," Linsert recalled. "We didn't even know if we were asking the right questions. But they [the staff at the BSF] helped us learn all about it."

Today, Martek has huge fermentation facilities in Kentucky and South Carolina.

"Now our product is sold all over," Linsert said.

Since 1998, the facility at Maryland has performed nearly 700 fermentation projects, which Sybert and others say have helped accelerate the pace of technology and product development for companies in this region. Companies such as Human Genome Sciences Inc. and Digene Corp., and government agencies such as units of the National Institutes of Health have all taken advantage of its services.

According to Sybert, the BSF works with 30 to 40 companies a year and charges a fee based on volume and equipment used plus the cost of raw materials. It operates close to a break-even basis, he said.

Aaron H. Heifetz, general manager of Cambrex Bio Science Baltimore, a contract manufacturer of biotechnology products on East Lombard Street, said having a facility such as the BSF is a crucial element of the state's drive to reach "critical mass" as a biotechnology powerhouse. The pieces are falling into place, he said.

"The facility at College Park is pretty well known throughout the state, and [probably] up and down the East Coast," Heifetz said.

At the recent ceremony highlighting the upgraded BSF, Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said the state estimates that almost all Maryland companies that have achieved "production or any kind of repeatable process have had their engineers trained at this facility."

In addition to contract production, consulting and student education, the BSF periodically holds workshops, many times at the request of a company such as MedImmune Inc.

The Gaithersburg-based biotech drug developer worked with the university to set up workshops, which were attended by small groups of employees from MedImmune's Frederick manufacturing center, where the company makes Synagis, a respiratory infection treatment for infants that's becoming a blockbuster drug for that company.

As helpful as the research assistance is, Heifetz and others said BSF's largest contribution is in work force training. Maryland graduates who have worked with the facility come into the work force with a commercial-grade understanding of the manufacturing process. The reason: The BSF, Heifetz, Sybert and others say, uses current technology that's like what the graduates will be using in the real world. And that's what makes the new upgrade so important.

What's more, it helps younger entrants find jobs locally so that they remain here to benefit the state.

Michael O'Mara was a Maryland graduate and BSF alum when he joined Cambrex as a technician nine years ago. Today, O'Mara, 33, is Cambrex Baltimore's director of microbial manufacturing.

The BSF experience "pretty much determined my career," O'Mara said.

About BSF

Name: University of Maryland Bioprocessing Scale-Up Facility

Opened: 1985

Goal: Develop and "scale up" biotechnology products and processes.

Capabilities: Fermentation, cell culture, separation, purification, product analysis

Some client companies: Human Genome Sciences, MedImmune, Martek Biosciences, Digene Corp.

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