Japanese drug trial firm linchpin of new BioPark

Company invests $20 million in biotech complex, which marks opening today

October 18, 2005|By TRICIA BISHOP | TRICIA BISHOP,SUN REPORTER

Sitting in his office, with a well-filled bookcase as a backdrop, David J. Ramsay, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, tells the story of an unlikely alliance. He hands over a business card as evidence.

On its face, the card is standard issue. There's the UMB seal, the requisite contact information, Ramsay's title. On the flip side is something unexpected: The card has been translated into Japanese.

Ramsay has spent the last decade cultivating a relationship between the school and the Japanese pharmaceutical industry - a sort of East meets West Baltimore collaboration that has led to a $20 million investment by a Tokyo businessman behind a new drug trial company.

"You never know where these things are going to lead," said Ramsay, who travels to Japan about three times a year, meeting with executives to try to persuade them to expand in Maryland.

With Ramsay's encouragement, a company called SNBL Clinical Pharmacology Center Inc. is setting up shop on the top two floors of a building at the university's new BioPark, the $350 million, 10-building biotechnology business complex rising just west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

With construction complete on one of the buildings, the occupants and the university are throwing themselves a party today to celebrate the opening. Among the new tenants are the life sciences division of Baltimore law firm Miles & Stockbridge; Alba Therapeutics, a well-funded university startup working on treatments for celiac disease and diabetes; the School of Medicine Center for Vascular and Inflammatory Diseases, and Harbor Bank of Maryland.

At a ceremony this morning in a heated tent in the 800 block of W. Baltimore St., Ramsay will be joined by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Mayor Martin O'Malley, Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon and Ryoichi Nagata, president of Shin Nippon Biomedical Laboratories Ltd. Along with speeches will be a Japanese "sake barrel-breaking" ceremony called Kagami Biraki and a drum performance by percussionists dressed in traditional garb.

As biotechnology has emerged as a greater engine of business opportunity, government officials and investors have increasingly tried to grab a piece of it.

Maryland's secretary of business and economic development has promoted the state as a global hotspot for biotechnology and Baltimore's mayor recently suggested developing a vaccine manufacturing plant in the city in response to concern about avian flu.

The university's west-side BioPark is one of two such parks under development in Baltimore. Johns Hopkins is creating one adjacent to its sprawling medical campus on the east side of the city.

Combined, the two parks are expected to create more than 10,000 jobs and help small companies emerge from the universities. They will also help enhance the city and state's reputation as a life sciences hub, already bolstered by the Interstate 270 corridor in Montgomery County near the National Institutes of Health.

SNBL, which will test drugs for safety and tolerability on mostly healthy volunteers, will anchor the west-side BioPark. Landing the company, with its hefty cash outlay and long history in Japan, was considered something of a coup for the university and the project.

Researchers at the school will have direct and easy access to the clinical trial company, which is expected to draw high-profile clients such as Pfizer and Merck and Co.

Drug testing

The company's parent, Shin Nippon Biomedical Laboratories Ltd. of Tokyo, was founded in 1957 as Japan's first contract-research organization. It has offices in Boston and established a pre-clinical research facility outside Seattle in 1999.

The Baltimore location marks its first foray into the next stage of clinical work, testing the efficacy of various drugs in humans.

SNBL paid $10 million to buy the top two floors of the school's first BioPark building. It spent another $8 million developing and furnishing the 40,000 square feet, and plans to spend another couple of million recruiting talent.

"We commit ourselves," said Takeshi Yamakawa, SNBL's chief operating officer and president. A former diplomat and Japanese government official, Yamakawa decided to switch careers and work in the private sector a year ago. He hooked up with Shin Nippon Biomedical Laboratories, and was sent to Baltimore to set up shop as his first assignment.

"Dr. Nagata trusted me to start the business here by myself without experience," he said, looking simultaneously proud of and astonished by his admission.

After a year of interviews and construction oversight, Yamakawa is ready to open the company's doors. The first trials are set to begin in November.

Last week, Yamakawa stood at a window on the sixth floor of the new building. Before him, the Orioles' and Ravens' stadiums were visible, row homes stretched for miles and fall clouds hung low in the sky. Inside, tiles in soft blue formed swirl patterns on the floor, their colors chosen for their Japanese symbolism of life and the environment.

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