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Published February 21, 2010, 12:00 AM

Pharming the Valley: Vaccine hotbed could take root in F-M

Space is waiting on the third flood of the business incubator at North Dakota State University to house what’s called the Center for Biopharmaceutical Research and Production.

By: Patrick Springer, INFORUM

Space is waiting on the third flood of the business incubator at North Dakota State University to house what’s called the Center for Biopharmaceutical Research and Production.

More importantly, a high-profile vaccine researcher with ties to major pharmaceutical firms has been recruited to lead the center, beginning this spring.

“This individual already has projects that he’s working on that would travel with him,” said Charles Peterson, dean of NDSU’s College of Pharmacy.

“I expect within two or three years there will be some significant successes,” he added.

The new center is part of an extensive team effort in Fargo-Moorhead that has been in the works for four or five years – and now appears poised to blossom with vaccine startups or expansions.

To lure vaccine firms, business and academic leaders want to build upon academic research and programs already available, along with well-positioned firms already here.

“We’re in discussions now with three or four companies that are interested,” said Brian Walters, president of the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp. “We have to close there.”

One of the firms is a Canadian company that is looking to establish a manufacturing plant in the United States to make its vaccines.

“I would say the Red River Valley is well on the way to have the core expertise to proceed,” said James Carlson, the founder of Cetero, formerly PRACS, which tests drugs for the pharmaceutical industry.

“I think it’s beyond viable,” Carlson said of the area’s potential. “I think it’s something that will happen in the future.”

Michael Chambers, president of Aldevron, a Fargo biotechnology firm that makes DNA vaccines, has been a leading advocate of targeting vaccine companies to boost the area’s economy.

“I do think we’re going to see a steady stream of companies come into our area,” Chambers said.

Aldevron, which started in 1998 in a small laboratory at NDSU, now has a German subsidiary and an office in Madison, Wis., a biotechnology hotbed of perhaps 200 firms that has evolved over 20 years in association with research at the University of Wisconsin.

“It all started with Aldevron,” Carlson said of the foothold the metro area is establishing to attract vaccine firms. Combined with Cetero’s ability to test new drugs, Aldevron’s ability to make DNA vaccines lends crucial viability, Carlson said.

“We’ve got the intellectual assets,” he added. “Those two companies can work well together.”

Collaborative vision

By some estimates, the rapidly growing vaccine sector has become a

$22 billion to $24 billion industry, with predictions it could almost double in five years, Peterson said.

Even capturing a small part of that would be significant, he added. “Somebody’s going to benefit from that. Why not North Dakota?”

Over time, Fargo-Moorhead could become another Madison, with a “cluster” of vaccine and related biotechnology firms drawn by research and a highly educated work force of graduates from local universities, Chambers said.

NDSU, Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College cooperate as the Tri-College, which is working on a curriculum plan tailored to the vaccine industry.

Each campus also has research initiatives in life sciences that are integral to vaccine and other biotechnology companies. Working together, the three campuses can achieve a “critical mass,” Walters said.

“We start to look like a small Big Ten school, which is attractive to the industry,” he said.

The traditional approach to economic development, which relies heavily on promoting quality of life and business climate, doesn’t really help to woo vaccine and biotech firms, Walters said.

“Talent and the knowledge part of it is their No. 1 consideration,” he said.

By providing a highly trained work force, together with research expertise, the community would be well positioned to capture jobs involving the development and manufacture of vaccines, Peterson said.

“These are highly technical, skilled, trained workers that you can’t just find anywhere,” he said.

The collaborative vision that already brings together many of those elements is what enabled NDSU to recruit the leading researcher to head the new biopharmaceutical center, he added.

Time to develop

Eventually, Peterson envisions a 75,000-square-foot vaccine development center at NDSU’s research and technology park.

“We will build this center, and I can’t imagine it will be anything but successful, given what we already have,” Peterson said. “Like any business, it just takes time to develop.”

Plans call for laboratory and office space in the business incubator to be ready in six to 12 months, but the new director will “camp out” in Sudro Hall, which houses the pharmacy program, until then.

Peterson would not disclose the director’s name, saying the university was not ready to make the announcement, but he expects the person to be onboard around April 1.

Walters and Carlson, among others, believe the vaccine initiative should encompass the Red River Valley Research Corridor, including the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and vaccine companies located in the northern valley.

“I think it would be good to see an alignment across the whole system,” Walters said of North Dakota’s university system.

Peterson agreed that collaboration and partnerships, public and private, are the key to success.

“We don’t intend to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “We intend to leverage every resource that’s available.”

The research director for Sanford Health-MeritCare said the health system continues to weigh possibilities in Fargo-Moorhead.

“We continue to have discussions about the future of research development in the Fargo area, and we see significant potential because of the expertise already assembled in the community,” said Ben Perryman. “The exact details of any Sanford research involvement are not yet determined, but we look forward to continuing the dialogue and learning more about the opportunities.”

Local economic development officials chose the vaccine industry four or five years ago as a key growth sector to target. Their first efforts in trying to attract interest fell flat.

But as Fargo-Moorhead refined its vision, and message, it has been drawing increasing interest from the vaccine sector, Walters said.

Key contacts have come in biotechnology conferences, where communities have the opportunity to make brief pitches to companies looking for a location for startups or expansions.

“Selling is easy when you figure out what the buyer wants to buy,” Walters said. But, he added, the level of competition is intense, with cities vying to land vaccine firms.

“This will go fast,” Walters said. “The next year will be critical. Your reputation sells itself once you become known as the place to be. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Established entities

The life sciences foundation in Fargo and the Red River Valley corridor includes the following businesses and academic centers or programs:

  • Aldevron, a Fargo company that makes DNA vaccines and materials used in biotechnology research.

  • Cetero, formerly PRACS Institute, a Fargo company that has extensive experience in testing new pharmaceuticals.

  • NovaDigm, a California firm with lab and office operations in Grand Forks, is developing vaccines to combat infections.

  • Avianax, a company started in South Dakota, is conducting vaccine production research in partnership with the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks and the Mayo Clinic.

  • North Dakota State University’s Center of Biomedical Pharmaceuticals Research, launched with a $2 million state centers of excellence grant.

  • Concordia College’s Global Vaccine institute is working to develop vaccines on neglected tropical diseases, including hookworm.

    Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522